July 7, 2017; Honolulu Civil Beat
As reported in Honolulu Civil Beat, Hawaii’s legislators allocated $600,000 in 2016 to civil legal aid groups that offer services to people with low incomes who could not otherwise afford the help. In 2017, the amount was increased to $750,000. How much in this year’s budget, which started July 1st? Zip, as in zero.
The cut comes at a time when legal aid groups in Hawaii and throughout the nation are already facing more demand for their services than they can meet. In an interview with Civil Beat, Sergio Alcubilla, director of external relations for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, said that the nonprofit serves between 8,000 and 10,000 clients out of 20,000 calls for help it receives. The organization is the largest public interest law firm in the state.
Alcubilla said that the state funding cut will affect the number of clients the organization can take on. “There are a lot of vulnerable people in our communities,” Alcubilla said to Civil Beat, “and any legal situation can push them over that brink when living paycheck to paycheck.”
This situation may be temporary. Funds may be restored next year or in a supplemental budget, said Hawaii State Sen. Karl Rhoads. In the past, Rhoads has pressed for permanent, recurring state funding for legal aid. This year, he said to Civil Beat, the money “got tangled up in the running feud between the Judiciary and the Legislature—I think that may be part of the reason it didn’t pass this year.”
That may be so in Hawaii, but the prospects for federal legal aid funding—while not cut to zero yet—are also grim. As NPQ reported in April, the Trump administration is looking to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which, according to its website, provides funding to 133 legal aid programs throughout the country. (For example, the aforementioned Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3), receives a quarter of its funding from the LSC.)
According to the LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap report, in the last year, 71 percent of low-income households reported at least one civil legal problem, including domestic violence, problems with veterans benefits, and housing conditions. For 86 percent of the legal problems low-income Americans reported, they received inadequate or no legal help. The LSC estimates that in 2017, low-income Americans will seek help from legal aid groups for approximately 1.7 million legal problems, but due to a lack of resources, the organizations will be able to provide only limited help or no help at all for more than half of those problems.
While the Trump administration has certainly upped the ante, inadequate funding has plagued legal aid groups for years—maybe as long as there has been legal aid. For example, NPQ has reported on the situation in Louisiana, where low-income criminal defendants languish for years without a trial. They have the constitutional right to an attorney, but they can’t afford one—and the waiting list for public defenders, already overburdened with huge caseloads, is long.
Economic vulnerability often goes hand-in-hand in with legal jeopardy. LSC’s Justice Gap report notes that the top three issues for which low-income Americans seek legal help concern health (in 41 percent of cases), consumer/finance (37 percent), and rental/housing (29 percent).
In a case cited by Honolulu Civil Beat, Jewell Domingos moved to Hawaii to care for her chronically ill brother but was informed by the program that paid for his apartment that she couldn’t stay there. Not wanting to jeopardize his housing, she moved to a homeless shelter. Domingos went to the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, which successfully argued that as her brother’s full-time caregiver, she was entitled not only to live in the same apartment but at no additional rent.
“Having help and an advocate from Legal Aid really turned me around both financially and spiritually,” Domingos said in an interview with Civil Beat. “It gave me a clean slate.”—Nancy Young