Federal Funding Critical To Equal Justice for All 5/19/17 05/22/17 10:44:51 AM
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Federal Funding Critical
To Equal Justice for All
By Milo Mumgaard
Amazingly, in 2016 Legal Aid provided free civil legal services to over 23,000 low-income Nebraskans through over 10,000 opened cases, one legal case at a time. That’s a huge amount of legal work from our 40-plus attorneys.
It’s particularly remarkable knowing it involves representing low-income clients with some of life’s toughest legal challenges. In the lives of struggling working people, inevitably crises and complications arise – no money to pay the rent, a family breakdown, a loss of a job, lack of health care, too many debts, a new disability. Low-income, working Nebraskans need civil legal aid to help solve these problems. And Legal Aid is there. We have a big job, and we are happy to do it.
Legal Aid is simply delivering on a shared promise: if low-income Nebraskans have access to a lawyer to protect their rights or to enforce helpful laws, “equal justice” is more than just words; it is reality. Without legal assistance, there are real world consequences. Legal help is often the only thing standing between a low-income person’s ability to help themselves see better days, or suffer a fall into deeper poverty, cynicism and disrespect for the law. In contrast, every day across Nebraska, our staff, pro bono and reduced fee lawyers, and volunteers give our low-income clients the hope, fairness and opportunity they otherwise would go without.
Fortunately, over its 54-year history Legal Aid has received the financial and volunteer support of local Omaha attorneys and firms to help us breathe life into this promise of equal justice for all. Today, that support is more important than ever.
I have received many inquiries in the last couple months from firms and individual private attorneys wondering about federal funding for our free civil legal aid for the poor. It’s a good question, because cuts to federal funding for Legal Aid have been in the news.
Local support is critical to meeting legal needs. No question. But federal funding is the underlying foundation to Legal Aid’s pledge to “make equal justice happen.” In 2017, Legal Aid is receiving about one-third of our funding from federal sources. This mostly comes from the federal Legal Services Corporation, along with grants from federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Justice, Agriculture, HUD and the IRS. The rest of our funding comes from private attorneys and firms, the State of Nebraska, IOLTA, foundation grants, charitable donors, United Ways, churches and contracts for services. This diversity is the envy of legal aid programs across the country.
Study after study shows, though, even this mix of funding meets only 20 percent of the need for civil legal aid among low-income Nebraskans. Legal Aid, given the scale of these legal needs, requires federal funding to do what it does. Without federal funding, our work is that much harder, and for many Nebraskans, is simply impossible.
Victims of domestic violence, seniors, victims of natural disasters, Native Americans, farmers and rural Nebraska residents all rely on federal funding for legal help. A cut in federal funding would deprive these low-income Nebraskans, as federal funding is the institutional foundation for Legal Aid’s entire statewide efforts. Losing it would severely cripple all we do for children, families, veterans and the disabled living in every city and town in Nebraska. Offices would close, staff would leave and low-income Nebraskans, including in Omaha, would go unrepresented.
“Equal justice under law” is the basic proposition handed down to us from Jefferson and Madison, is the promise on the portals of the U.S. Supreme Court building and is included in the first lines of the U.S. Constitution. Federal funding represents real world support for this ideal of fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money a person has. It solidly provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health and their families. And it says when we pledge allegiance to justice for all, it is not an empty pledge but a tangible reality.
Federal funding, in a very concrete sense, “makes equal justice happen” across Nebraska. And without federal funding, equal justice is just a promise, not reality.