Legal Aid for Low-Income Texans Cut Under Proposed 2019 White House Budget

State & Regional

Connie Castillo and Jeanette Bell live in different parts of Texas, but both share a similar feeling: If it wasn’t for civil legal aid services coming to their help, they don’t know what they would do.
“It put me into a panic attack,” Castillo said. “I had no idea – I was just totally shaken to the core.”

Castillo, who lives in Houston, is currently dealing with an eviction case. She and other people living in her complex were given a five-day notice to vacate several weeks after Hurricane Harvey. Lone Star Legal Aid filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than 20 people in the same complex, saying the apartments their clients lived in only suffered minor damage.

“It was like, ‘what am I going to do?” Castillo said. “Where am I going to go?”

The case is set for trial next month. Bell’s situation also deals with a housing issue. She was close to losing her home to foreclosure, but attorneys from Legal Aid of Northwest Texas helped her through the process to save the house.

“They were a blessing and I thank God for them every day,” Bell says about her help from the organization.

Lone Star Legal Aid, Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid all receive grant funding from the Legal Services Corporation, which is the independent nonprofit established by Congress to provide funding for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. According to numbers from the agency, between 2013-2015, the groups closed an average of more than 50,000 cases each year. These grants make up about half of the funding for each organization.

The Trump Administration tried to eliminate the agency in its 2018 budget. Congress, however, approved funding keeping it at 2017’s level of $385 million.

Now, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2019 is trying to cut the program again, saying this “puts more control in the hands of state and local governments that better understand the needs of their communities.”

“LSC’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has identified several instances of waste, fraud and abuse involving grant recipients,” the fiscal year 2019 budget report says. “In the October 2017 Semiannual Report to the Congress, the OIG reported a number of unallowable expenses incurred by grantees, including $17,896 in unjustified expenditures on floral arrangements, musical entertainment and cake orders made as part of efforts to recruit private attorneys; multiple cases of unreasonable travel reimbursements for mileage between offices and personal residences; and unlawful bonuses derived from LSC funds for one grantee’s chief operating officer.”

Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, worries about this possible cut in funding.

“There’s really no other place to turn to for legal services programs, as far as providing legal services to low-income families,” he said. “We represent low-income families, many veterans, many persons who have mental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, many families who are single wage earners.”

For Fuchs, access to legal aid equals access to justice.

“You can have all of these laws on the books, but without lawyers to enforce those laws, they’re meaningless,” he said. “Who enforces those? Lawyers enforce those.”

The Trump Administration hopes the proposed elimination will encourage nonprofits, businesses, law firms and religious institutions to develop new models for providing legal aid, such as pro bono work, law school clinics and innovative technologies.

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