Editor’s note: This commentary is by Daniel Richardson, who is a partner at the Montpelier law firm of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson. He is the president of the Vermont Bar Foundation, which oversees private grant and fundraising for Legal Aid, Law Line and other legal charities. He is also the past president of the Vermont Bar Association.
Sandwiched between the headlines last week about President Trump’s proposals for Meals on Wheels and Big Bird was news that the administration will also seek to end funding for the Legal Services Corp. (LSC). For Vermonters, the radical cuts proposed by the president portend disaster.
The LSC is a nonprofit corporation that was formed by an act of Congress in 1974. Its mission was and remains to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans. In advocating for the creation of the LSC, President Richard Nixon wrote:
America’s system of law now requires equal treatment for all in our courts of criminal justice. It is no less important that equal access be afforded those who seek redress through our civil laws. We propose no special favors for any group in our society, nor do we seek to mandate the use of the legal system to the exclusion of other social institutions as instruments of social progress. We propose, simply, to protect and preserve a basic right of all Americans.
The LSC and its various state-level entities and partners, such as Legal Services Law Line of Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid, fulfill this promise by putting lawyers in courthouses across the state to represent individuals who could not otherwise afford it. The LSC model is based on a simple idea: If everyone has legal representation, then everyone benefits. This has been proven true over and over again.
Cuts to the LSC and its state partners are wrong. They threaten not only those most vulnerable, but they have the potential to deteriorate a legal system that struggles each day to do more with less. In the short term, these cuts mean fewer lawyers on the ground providing legal services to those in need. In the long term, these cuts threaten to shut off a critical set of services that benefit all Vermonters.
Even if Trump’s plans for total defunding are not enacted, cuts to the LSC and its state partners are all but guaranteed. Eric Avildsen, executive director of Vermont Legal Aid, said recently that his organization and Law Line are anticipating cuts of 5 to 10 percent within the next six months as part of continuing funding resolutions that the House and Senate are likely to approve. Any budget eventually passed will likely deepen the reductions further.
On top of cuts at the federal level Gov. Phil Scott’s budget proposal contains two steep cuts to Legal Aid that total $100,000. These cuts would also mean the loss of matching federal funds. When totaled with the anticipated federal reductions, Vermont faces a loss of over a million dollars in LSC and legal aid funds.
Spend a little time on the Vermont Legal Aid website. You will see that while Legal Aid and LSC provide legal services to the underprivileged, their services are also geared toward larger problems of society, which affect us all.
For a self-represented litigant, navigating court process is like deciding on the right spot to make an incision to remove your gallbladder.
Perhaps the best example of Legal Aid’s large mission is its work in 2008 during the mortgage foreclosure crisis. This crisis hit Vermont. like every other state. with the force of a tsunami. Overnight, banks transformed from lending and investment institutions into foreclosure mills. The number of foreclosure filings spiked to historic highs. The court system was inundated with reams of computer-generated foreclosure documents and hundreds of panicked homeowners were left trying to make sense of a dense, arcane legal process to save their homes.
Into this breach Legal Aid attorneys, led by former Poverty Law fellow Grace Pazdan, stepped up to provide both courtroom triage and advocacy on a state level for better process. As a result of Legal Aid’s work, the Vermont General Assembly and Gov. Jim Douglas adopted a foreclosure mediation program for all homeowners (regardless of income) and a process to slow foreclosures down and require banks to come to the table, negotiate and talk. This was a win-win-win situation. Homeowners gained a forum to talk directly with the banks and a last chance to save their home. Banks received a reliable process where they could negotiate repayment plans without forgoing their rights. Vermonters were spared the crash in home prices that affected so many other communities around the country.
In the past 10 years, LSC and Legal Aid services have grown more important. Vermont, like many states, is facing a legal service crisis. Each year, fewer and fewer Vermonters can afford to hire an attorney, and each year more decide to either forfeit their claims or simply go it alone. By the Vermont Supreme Court’s most recent reports, approximately 72 percent of all cases in the system involve one or more self-represented party.
For a self-represented litigant, navigating court process is like deciding on the right spot to make an incision to remove your gallbladder. Those without counsel are effectively guessing and feeling their way through a complicated series of choices and hearings, trying to find their way to a resolution without sacrificing a vital right. Cases, particularly administrative cases, are complicated, and it can be hard to even see if you are even on the right track.
Lawyers make the law work. As an attorney who has litigated against Legal Aid, I can unequivocally state that I welcome their presence in any case. When a Legal Aid attorney appears in a case, I know that she will hold my client to the limit of what is allowed. I also know that after we talk, the attorney will explain the process and issues to her clients and give them an assessment of the case that is fair and accurate. Nine times out of 10, this means a shortcut to settlement or resolution. That is a benefit to my client and to the other side. My client may not get everything he wants, but he will get what he is entitled to receive, and he will get it sooner than litigation would normally allow. As a legal aid attorney once said to me, “I tell clients that I cannot keep them in the apartment if the landlord wants them out, but I can make sure they get the best deal and see that the legal process is followed.”
As Vermonters and as citizens, we have to ask ourselves if the savings promised by the cuts proposed in Washington and Montpelier are worth the price we will pay in the long term. A cut to Legal Aid on the state level might save you a penny on your tax bill. A cut to LSC on the federal level is such a small drop in the bucket it won’t even show up on your return in April. But with each cut, the cost of doing business goes up substantially. For low-income Vermonters, cuts at the state and federal level will mean fewer resources to count on when trouble arises. For the rest of us, it will mean more delays, greater legal costs and longer waits. For employers and businesses, it means a more fragile workforce as employees facing issues previously covered by Legal Aid projects will have nowhere to go. Minor problems will become major. Major problems will become debilitating. That is a cost and a reckoning for each of us, and one that is likely to exceed the penny we keep today.
As we head into the final budget season in the Statehouse, the General Assembly and the governor must restore Legal Aid funding to its current levels. Keep this valuable program in place. At the same time, we need to remind the president and Congress that legal services funding is important and an essential part of protecting and preserving the basic rights of all Americans.