Tag Archives: Legal Aid of North Carolina

Antonin Scalia advocated for support of legal aid, fundamental to justice

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believed that the Legal Services Corporation (and, by extension, its client, Legal Aid of North Carolina) pursue equal justice, which is

the most fundamental of American ideals and they pursue equal justice in those areas of life most important to the lives of our citizens. The bulk of [their] cases, if you look at their annual report, involve domestic violence, real estate foreclosures and evictions, child custody, and denial of veterans’ benefits, unemployment compensation, and other governmental benefits. More than a third of the cases closed by [Legal Services] grantees in 2013 involved family law and more than a quarter of them housing.

Scalia asked, “Can there be justice if it is not equal, can there be a just society when some do not have justice?”

And he answered,

Equality, equal treatment is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice. . . . And in today’s law-ridden society, denial of access to professional legal assistance is denial of equal justice.”

It’s fair (more than fair, it’s necessary ) to explore alternative means of delivering equal justice: technology, delivery of services by others than licensed lawyers, new sources of funding. Indeed, it’s reasonable to hope that those who develop new alternatives will be able to do it on a for-profit basis and make lots of money. (The scale is surely there.)

But it’s not right to cut funds before alternatives are available.

Justice Scalia said:

Equality … is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice.

NC legal system — invest or divest?

In the past year the North Carolina legislature enacted cuts or reductions (or proposed to) in the following, which might be characterized as the infrastructure of North Carolina’s legal system.

The number of trial court judges (emergency judges)

               The number of appellate judges

The budget (therefore staff) of the Department of Justice

Funds (therefore staff) for Legal Aid of North Carolina (formerly taken from filing fees)

Funds for the UNC Law School

Dues (paid by lawyers) that fund the North Carolina State Bar.

In periods leading to this year, North Carolina’s population has grown and its economy has grown. Commerce has picked up and unemployment has dropped. The State has pursued a policy of promoting trade and business investment in North Carolina by companies outside the state and outside the United States.

Unless North Carolina’s legal system was overfunded in the past, the conclusion might be reached that more, not fewer, resources are needed to maintain what we’ve got.

The American justice system is credited as a core element of the economic and cultural success of the United States. Enforcement of obligations (commercial and other) —predictably, impartially, efficiently and effectively — is a big part of what made America great.

And, actually, we are at a time when improvements are needed.

Closing the loop on legal aid, not in a good way

The budget finally adopted by North Carolina’s General Assembly entirely eliminates funding for the State’s legal aid agencies ($1.7 million).

Until now, that amount had been generated by taking $1.50 from every court fee and distributing it to Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services, which provide legal services to poor people in North Carolina.

The point has been made here that as many as a third of North Carolina citizens qualify for legal aid. Sixty percent of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s clients earn less than $15,000 a year.

Those people, like the rest of us, must have access to the legal system, even if they can’t afford it, where

  • They are victims of domestic violence
  • They don’t get child support
  • They need to create guardianships for their grandchildren
  • They get ripped off by scammers of the elderly
  • They get fouled up applying for legislated benefits, including veterans benefits

and in a great range of other cases.

This is not a partisan issue.

21st Century society is complex. It cannot move without legal process. Everyone must use the system. And everybody needs access to legal services when they do.

Legal aid helps people get a hearing. It does not engage in politics. It does not pursue social change. And it does not target interest groups.

We all need the legal system to work at a minimal level for everybody who’s involved with it. Otherwise, over time bigger problems will develop.

For the General Assembly to stop a small portion of court fees from going to fund legal aid is bad for everyone, not just poor people.

The legislature made a mistake.

 

NC legislature proposes to eliminate access to civil justice funds — troubling

Word has come that the North Carolina House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee has proposed a provision for the 2017 Budget entitled “Eliminate Access to Civil Justice Funds.” It would eliminate approximately $1.7 million in combined funding for Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and Pisgah Legal Services. Eliminating Access to Civil Justice Funds would cause drastic reductions in legal aid agencies’ services to those most in need, undermining equal access to justice for North Carolina citizens.

Take this provision together with the President’s proposed federal budget, which eliminates funding for the Legal Services Corporation, and access to the justice system will be cut off for a large number of North Carolina’s neediest people.

This includes access to legal services in cases of domestic violence, for disabled persons, for veterans, and in so many other cases.

Some issues in everyone’s lives, important issues, can only be resolved with access to the justice system. People who cannot afford legal assistance and seek to represent themselves, clog the courts. When important issues are not resolved, people are diverted from productive pursuits.

We already have a problem because so many cannot afford access to the system.

Reductions from current funding levels will make things worse.

Access to legal system is fundamental: John Hood of John Locke Foundation

John Locke

John Hood, Chairman of North Carolina’s John Locke Foundation, makes the same point this week that MidLaw made last week: the legal system and meaningful access to it for everybody is fundamental to our system of government. Access is a matter of infrastructure. (An on-ramp, if you will.)

Hood is not addressing the federal budget with its proposed de-funding the Legal Services Corporation. Instead, he is endorsing the just-released final report of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice.

The final report calls for investments in North Carolina’s courts system up to $91 million over 6 years to improve access to the system. Hood sums up:

this plan is affordable and reflects the highest priorities of any government: public safety and the protection of individual rights.

But, if the federal government de-funds Legal Services, then the cost of the North Carolina plan will go up — both now and later.

The North Carolina report finds that

Statistics about low-income individuals’ access to lawyers are quite discouraging, … partly because legal aid programs have lost significant funding in recent years. Pro bono (donated legal services) programs have helped some litigants but simply do not have the capacity to come close to being a complete solution

Legal Aid of North Carolina brings legal services to low-income people in North Carolina. It appears to deliver a very high volume of access to justice (legal services) with limited and now declining resources. It depends heavily on funding from the Legal Services Corporation.

Hood points to technology and service providers other than lawyers, as emerging means of improving access to the justice system. He concludes:

Legal practice and public expectations are changing in response to new technologies, like it or not. North Carolina can either adjust its court system to that reality, or pay a far heavier price in the future.

Might there be better ways to deliver legal services to the poor? Technology, say, and providers other than lawyers? Bring them.

In the meantime, eliminating funding from the federal budget for Legal Services sounds like making a bad situation worse (“pay a far heavier price in the future”). And it puts a premium on State funding.

Legal aid is infrastructure, not welfare: got to have bridges so traffic can move

Word has come that the next federal budget will cut or eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Legal Services Corporation is the largest funder of legal services for the poor in the country.

Does the impetus for cutting legal aid come from a sense that legal aid to the poor is a form of welfare? Does it come from a sense that legal aid funds lawsuits against the wealthy?

That’s the wrong way to look at it. Legal aid, even when given free to the undeserving poor, is not a handout. It’s an investment in infrastructure.

The rule of law is the foundation of the economy and society. And it depends on the justice system.

Our system is complex and getting more so. (“Increasing complexity is the story of human evolution, and the story of how and why law emerged.“)

If poor people do not have effective access to this complex system, two bad things happen. First, the legal entanglements of the poor clog and burden the system. Either controversies don’t get resolved, or people try to fix them without assistance. That makes things worse.

Second, bad outcomes contaminate society. People get soured and distracted from positive, productive pursuits.

North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin perceptively points to domestic affairs: spousal abuse, child abuse, child custody, divorces. Often intervention by the justice system is the only fix in those cases. People helping themselves makes things worse.

That’s domestic relations. The same things can happen with healthcare, housing, veterans’ rights, benefits for the elderly, and any number of other everyday things. The unmet legal needs of poor people in these areas are growing, while funding is already on the decline.

Removing legal aid from the federal budget will make things worse. It will make our system more expensive for everybody, not less. And it will exacerbate negative spirits generally — in a way that drags down the economy, politics, and society at large.

Legal Services Corporation channels funds to local agencies such as Legal Aid of North Carolina. If there’s something wrong with Legal Services in particular, then fix that. But don’t take the resources out of the system.

Legal aid ain’t a handout. It’s bridges and roads.

Traffic has to move. Pay me now, or pay me more later.

 

 

Tarboro-grown lawyer now prominent NC leader, delivering access to justice

And now it’s time for a word from our sponsor.

Our sponsor (indirectly anyway) is the North Carolina legal system.

Unhappily, it has come upon some hard times in recent years.

celia3

As recently noted, our economy and society have become extraordinarily more complex as compared with the days when tobacco was king and music had a back beat you could not lose. In today’s more complex world, vastly more people need legal services than ever before. And many fewer can afford lawyers than before.

This falls most heavily on the poor, of whom North Carolina has many. Twenty-three percent of North Carolinians cannot afford lawyers when they need’em. Eighty percent of the legal needs of poor people are not met.

That’s bad news. The results clog the courts system, burden the State and slow our economy.

The good news is that a Tarboro native and lawyer is at the forefront of bringing legal services to people who can’t afford them. She is a leader at the State and national levels — and she is widely recognized for her exceptional abilities and good works.

Celia Pistolis, formerly of Baker Street.

In her role as Director of Advocacy at Legal Aid of North Carolina, Celia supervises one of the largest staffs of lawyers in the State and manages what is surely the largest network of law offices. In her role as chair of the North Carolina Equal Justice Alliance, Celia also leads the principal association of all the major providers of legal services to poor people in North Carolina.

Celia was honored in 2012 by UNC Law School, which granted her a Distinguished Alumni Award, putting her in company with some of the most accomplished lawyers in North Carolina and beyond. The North Carolina Bar Association awarded her the Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award as far back as 2002. And the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation selected her to receive a special sabbatical award in 2011 in recognition of her service.

Celia is an important leader doing badly needed work. She is in the middle of a distinguished career. A great Tarboro lawyer.

So, MidLaw’s sponsor, the North Carolina legal system, has great needs and Tarboro-born-and-raised lawyer Celia Pistolis is a key leader in meeting those needs. She is getting results.  In 2012, the total impact of legal aid in North Carolina was $48,775,276.

There’s a lot more to be done. Federal and state funding have steadily been cut. Private resources are needed. It’d be a good thing to give Celia’s organization a few bucks.

Unmet civil legal needs of poor people growing; funding shrinking

lancszIn a recent post, I went and said

Legislatures are reducing government funding for legal aid programs even as the demand grows.

Well,

  • 20% of the population in North Carolina qualifies for legal aid
  • 34% of children and 18% of old people (“seniors”) are eligible for legal aid
  • 80% of the civil legal needs of poor people are not met.

Since 2008, the need for legal aid is up 30% and funding is down

  • Federal funding down 35%
  • State funding down 33%
  • United Way funding down 32%
  • IOLTA funding down 30%.

Source: NC Access to Justice Fact Sheet

I told you so.