News & Events

A $15 tax bill nearly cost a family their home. With Trump, it would have -- by Martha Bergmark

April 20, 2017
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/03/15-tax-bill-cost-family-their-home-trump

When Paula and Joe Frye found their home in Muskogee, Oklahoma, listed for sale, they were shocked. They certainly hadn’t listed it, so who had? It turned out county officials had recently turned up an unpaid property tax bill from years earlier and used it as a pretext to auction off the home to the highest bidder.

The tax bill in question was $15.

On the brink of losing their home over a paltry sum, the Fryes didn’t know where to turn for legal help. They couldn’t afford a private attorney. Ultimately, Legal Aid of Oklahoma was able to step in, demonstrating the county never notified the Fryes of the auction or the unpaid bill – a violation of state law that saved their home.

While the Fryes got the help they needed, many other Americans facing potentially life-changing legal battles for their homes, families and livelihoods won’t be so lucky if Congress passes President Donald Trump’s budget proposal. They include veterans denied rightfully earned benefits, women trapped in abusive relationships, families fighting wrongful foreclosures and evictions, and parents seeking custody of their children.

Most of those who now find civil legal aid rely on a federal program most people have never heard of: the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Established in 1974 and long supported by Democrats and Republicans, LSC makes our justice system fairer by supporting more than 130 civil legal aid groups across the country that help people understand their rights and access legal representation.

Despite Americans’ clear need for legal help, President Trump’s budget proposal would cut LSC’s funding entirely.

It is challenging to square Trump’s promise to bring “forgotten” Americans back into the fold with such a choice. As a longtime civil legal aid attorney who spent much of my career in rural Mississippi, I’ve seen that many of the forgotten Americans the president says he wants to protect are the ones who need this vital assistance the most.

For many, the programs LSC supports are the difference, as in the case of the Frye family, between keeping their homes and being forced out on to the street. For some, such as women trapped in violent and abusive relationships, civil legal aid can even mean the difference between life and death.

Research has quantified the difference civil legal aid makes. A Boston study showed that two-thirds of tenants in eviction proceedings who received civil legal aid were able to stay in their homes, compared with one-third of those without a lawyer. Another study found that legal assistance can reduce domestic violence up to 21% by providing survivors the means to establish independence and escape their abusers – more effective than even shelters or counseling.

What good would come of depriving Americans of civil legal aid? If it’s about trimming fat, we’ll need to look elsewhere: LSC’s appropriation is roughly one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Yet this modest investment enables civil legal aid groups to extend their reach as far as possible – leveraging the work of lawyers on staff as well as the thousands of private attorneys who give their time pro bono to help Americans effectively navigate the justice system.

There’s a reason LSC has enjoyed broad bipartisan support for nearly half a century: people in all parts of the country and of nearly every background need it. Cuts to LSC would hit states with large rural areas particularly hard, where families already struggle to find the legal help they need.

Of the 10 states ranked lowest in access to a civil legal aid attorney – which include Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia and where further cuts to civil legal aid could be most devastating – nine voted for Trump.

LSC is a vital part of giving every American a fair shake in the justice system, and we must protect it. To gut it would renege on the core American promise of justice for all.

Martha Bergmark is the former president of the Legal Services Corporation, the current executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, and a lifelong civil legal aid attorney.