Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

Legal Aid: Understand the Budget Process, Frame the Message Appropriately and Build the Business Case

June 13, 2013

Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), joined the BBA last week for a discussion on legal services.  LSC, the single largest provider of legal services in the United States, has 800 offices nationwide and supports 134 programs.  LSC ensures a baseline of support for legal aid nationwide. In some parts of the country, such as the Deep South or the mountainous West, LSC constitutes the sole source of legal aid funding.  While LSC is not a government agency, it does receive all of its funding from a congressional appropriation.  It is subject to congressional oversight thereby making a solid and bi-partisan relationship with Congress very important.

Here are some takeaways from Jim Sandman’s discussion…..

  • The first line of the United States Constitution establishes justice as the primary goal of our nation.  A well-functioning justice system with access for all is necessary in our democratic country. If we have no mechanism to enforce rights, these rights have no meaning.
  • Legal aid is not a social safety net.   Real change will only come when there is a shift in vocabulary used to discuss legal aid. Legal aid is an access to justice issue and the mission of legal aid organizations is to close the access to justice gap, not to serve as a poverty relief program.
  • The business case needs to be presented clearly. Measuring outcomes in this context will provide leaders in Congress and at the State level with quantifiable evidence of the benefits that come from legal aid. Statistics related to savings from legal aid in domestic violence or foreclosure cases, for example, provide the concrete foundation for increasing funding to organizations that provide this aid.
  • We need stories and examples for the business community to demonstrate their interest in this area.  One familiar example of the business community’s interest is that of the employee who is also the victim of domestic violence.  With the help of a legal aid attorney, this employee is able to obtain a restraining order and is able to continue employment while avoiding hospital costs.

Jim Sandman is optimistic about the upcoming fiscal year. President Obama has signaled that funding for legal services is important and has recommended $430 million in LSC funding in his budget proposal.  $430 million is substantially more than what LSC has received in recent years.  It’s projected that the Senate budget this year will be as high as the President’s recommendation.  This should raise the ceiling on the House’s budget number. Since the final budget number is usually half way between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s proposal, this may result in a higher overall appropriation for LSC.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association