Legislators could whack legal aid for the needy

The Observer editorial board

Legal Services of Southern Piedmont helped Debra Pickett stay in her home.
Legal Services of Southern Piedmont helped Debra Pickett stay in her home. Courtesy of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont

Out of sight of most of us, tens of thousands of low-income North Carolinians receive desperately needed free legal help every year. Legal-aid lawyers rescue women from violent situations, win benefits for veterans, secure health care for poor people, guide people through foreclosures and help seniors recover from financial scams.

Now legislators plan to ax the $1.7 million of state money that goes to agencies that provide this aid. The proposal has been floating around for weeks and made it into the final budget the House and Senate are considering this week. Legal Aid of North Carolina stands to lose most of the money; Legal Services of Southern Piedmont in Charlotte and Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville would also take a hit. The money comes not from taxes but from court fees.

These agencies operate on a shoestring budget already, serving only a quarter or so of the people who need and qualify for the help. This cut would make things even harder, with layoffs possible. The cost will be borne ultimately by those least able to afford it – a familiar refrain with North Carolina’s legislature in recent years.

Ken Schorr, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, says he has been told that the initiative is being driven by House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. He said Moore cited “overzealous representation of tenants” in landlord-tenant disputes, though Moore didn’t refer to any specific case.

It’s hard to understand the origin or the reasoning because legislators have hosted no public discussion of the idea. Moore’s spokesman did not respond to an email from the Observer editorial board seeking comment on Tuesday.

It’s a cut of only 5-6 percent of their total budgets, but legal-aid offices had already seen this pool of money slashed from $6 million to under $2 million in recent years. This finishes the job, and it comes just as President Donald Trump proposes cutting federal money to these same agencies – which would be an even bigger blow.

“The work we do is core basic human-needs work,” Schorr told the Observer editorial board. “Physical safety, economic stability, we keep people from losing all their income, losing their housing, being subject to domestic violence. … There’s no other source of legal assistance for low-income people in civil matters.”

That’s an important point. Government provides a lawyer to poor defendants in criminal cases. But in civil cases, the poor are on their own. And most can’t represent themselves effectively.

Legal Services, for example, helped Earl Deaton, 67, win benefits from the Veterans Administration this year. He had suffered from PTSD for 40-plus years since being dishonorably discharged from Vietnam, and had not been able to get them on his own. The agency helped Debra Pickett, a widow, stay in her home when the bank where her husband had set up a reverse mortgage tried to take ownership of it.

Helping the thousands of people like Deaton and Pickett is an appropriate use of state money because the free market can’t or won’t fill the need. Legislators should restore it before finalizing the budget this week.