Via Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
Weeks into office, Donald Trump took aim at the 40-year-old Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the single largest funder of civil legal aid, serving two million low-income people nationwide who can’t afford legal representation. His proposal? Destroy LSC’s entire budget —$503 million—every penny of which currently goes toward providing access to justice in our country’s courts. This decision affects us directly: Massachusetts receives $5.1 million in LSC funding and more than 757,235 of the Commonwealth’s residents are eligible for civil legal aid support.
While neither Appropriations Committee has adopted such a drastic measure, the House bill cuts the LSC’s budget by about 25%, and the Senate bill maintains the current funding level. Our message? No cuts; not now, not ever. Civil legal aid is already overburdened and underfunded. Without lawyers to help low-income people enforce their rights, those rights become meaningless, empty promises. These funding threats attack our justice system. We won’t stand for it; you shouldn’t either.
We, the student attorneys, staff, and faculty of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), know that if the White House demolishes LSC, it takes our nation’s prized promise down with it: equal justice under law. If Congress slashes the agency’s funding, it’ll destroy a legal aid lifeline millions of low-income Americans rely on, and exacerbate longstanding inequities that low-income communities of color face in our judicial system. The dignity of low-income people—children, veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and domestic violence victims—is at stake in courtrooms across our country, and right here in the Commonwealth.
Though HLAB itself doesn’t receive LSC funding, as the second largest provider of civil legal aid in the Greater Boston Area, we know the LSC’s value, and how critical civil legal aid is to providing people with tools to protect their families, homes, health, and livelihoods. Every day we are forced to turn away potential clients, many of whom we refer to LSC-funded organizations, such as the Volunteer Lawyers Project, because we lack the capacity to serve them. But even with the LSC, we can’t meet the current overwhelming need for legal services in our community, from Dorchester to East Boston to Jamaica Plain. There’s already not enough LSC funding to go around—even small cuts would devastate access to justice.
If acted upon, Trump’s proposed cuts to LSC’s full budget will hit all 50 states, hard, and its aftershocks will leave many of our neighbors without the representation they so desperately need and deserve. Defunding LSC means that more domestic violence victims will face their abusers in court alone. It means more tenants who face hefty, arbitrary rent hikes from Boston gentrification projects will be evicted from their homes or continue to endure dangerously sub-standard housing conditions, especially when facing well-resourced landlord attorneys. And that’s only a handful of the consequences we stand to face.
Money shouldn’t determine one’s right to have parenting time, to be free from an abuser, or to stay in one’s home or in this country. The LSC and civil legal aid organizations like ours help level the playing field by providing legal assistance and representation, clinics, pro bono and court-based services, and access to information, language resources, and forms. It fulfills our nation’s bedrock promise of justice for all, not just for the few who can afford it.
When legal services are under attack, what will we do? Stand up and fight back. What can you do? Call your representative. Attend town halls, marches, meetings at City Life Vida Urbana, a tenant rights organization fighting evictions in Boston. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor in your local paper. Donate to a legal services organization. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau will stand with you, alongside the millions of Americans who deserve the right to counsel. Access to justice is worth fighting for.