If you’re accused of a crime and you can’t afford a lawyer, the state has to provide one for you, free of charge. But what about when you have a non-criminal issue — maybe your landlord is trying to evict you or you want to file a restraining order against an abusive partner?
In that situation, you only have two options: You can pay a lawyer or you can seek help from a nonprofit legal aid organization whose attorneys dedicate their time to clients who can’t afford to pay.
But if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is passed, it’s going to be much harder to find legal aid. That’s because the president's budget includes cuts to the Legal Services Corporation, which currently receives $385 million dollars a year from the federal government to fund 812 legal aid offices around the country.
Cuts to the Legal Services Corporation will be felt in rural America.
Legal Services Corporation advocates say that the program is particularly important in rural America, where there are fewer lawyers and thus fewer affordable options.
“In rural America, Rust Belt America, or small-town America, we’re the only game in town. There are very few lawyers,” John Levi, the Board Chair of the Legal Services Corporation, told ATTN:. “Folks think, ‘Well, there are lawyers everywhere.’ That’s not true.”
In Nebraska, for example, NPR reported in December that there are no lawyers in ten of the state’s counties.
“These communities are especially vulnerable, and you can’t close your eyes to them,” said José Padilla, the executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance, which receives $7 million dollars from Legal Services Corporation. That money amounts to 59 percent of his organization’s funding, according to Padilla. Under Trump’s budget proposal, they’d lose it all.
“The irony is that the Trump [campaign] appealed to the working people of this country,” Padilla said.
Padilla also points out that rural Americans are often overlooked, even though they have the same legal problems as Americans living in metro areas. His organization has represented many victims of sexual assault, which Padilla says is a major problem in agricultural communities. Female farm workers working in remote fields are often vulnerable to these types of attacks.
Domestic violence is another key area for legal aid, according to Phyllis Holmen, who is the executive director of Georgia Legal Services Program, which serves every county in Georgia except for the Atlanta metro area.
“In many [domestic violence] cases, it’s a matter of life or death,” Holmen told ATTN:. “We have had clients who have been shot — killed even — by a husband or a boyfriend who didn’t like that a judge issued a protective order [against them].”
Holmen’s organization stands to lose half of their funding under the president’s budget plan.
Legal Services Corporation is not alone on the chopping block.
Legal Services is one of more than a dozen programs that would be de-funded under Trump’s proposed budget. The plan also eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In its 2015 budget request, Legal Services Corporation said that legal aid saved tens of millions of dollars in public money that would have been spent on emergency shelter for people who successfully fought eviction. They also argue that millions have been saved in medical expenses that were avoided with protective orders against abusive partners.
“I’d like to know how many other programs leverage the federal dollar as well as we do,” Levi said.
Levi is also skeptical that private fundraising will be able to close the gap.
So what’s next?
If Congress ratifies Trump’s budget and de-funds Legal Services Corporation, Levi argues that it will weaken Americans’ faith in the legal system and in their government.
“I think this goes to the heart of who we are as a people,” Levi said. "Our founding fathers felt that you needed an orderly, functioning justice system that people had confidence would work for them, irrespective of their means. We can’t have people feeling like they and their family members were turned away by our system."