ALAMOSA — 12th Judicial District Judge Martin Gonzales warns that the San Luis Valley will have a serious legal loss if Congress approves President Donald Trump’s budget for FY 2018.
The budget calls for the elimination of the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), an independent nonprofit corporation established by Congress in 1974 to provide civil legal aid to low-income citizens.
A fact sheet from the corporation says LSC has enjoyed bipartisan support for more than four decades and, in each of the last three fiscal years, strong bipartisan majorities have increased LSC’s funding by $10 million per year.
Gonzales warns the elimination of LSC flies in the face of the most sacred duty of government – to provide equal and impartial justice to all its citizens – and contradicts our country’s solemn pledge of “justice for all.”
Colorado Legal Services (CLS), the statewide staffed legal aid program, currently serves 40 percent of its annual budget from LSC.
Even the Bar Association-sponsored pro bono programs rely on CLS for coordination and support. New initiatives are underway to encourage more pro bono representation and to provide more support for the increasing number of self-represented litigants, but neither can replace an adequately-funded, staffed legal aid program, with lawyers who are poverty law experts and available on demand when low-income families are in crisis.
Pro bono programs offer professional services dispensed on a voluntary basis at no cost to the recipient. Derived from Latin, pro bono means to work for the public good, and is most commonly used in the legal profession. The provider of a pro bono service may generally do so only to a party that is unable to afford an attorney.
According to Sullivan, CLS has less than half the staff it did 30 years ago, and more than three times as many clients. Even before the current round of funding losses, CLS was unable to meet the need for legal services among the poor because of inadequate resources. For every client served, at least one income-eligible client is unfortunately turned away.
Gonzales points out that citizens of the community rely heavily on CLS and elimination of LSC funding would be devastating for those with serious legal problems. “I don’t think the community realizes how important those services are,” he pointed out. “Solving legal problems up front avoids serious and costly consequences for the individuals and families involved and for the San Luis Valley as a whole.”
CLS Supervising attorney Tammy Sullivan explained, “CLS operates like a legal emergency room. In conducting its triage, it gives priority to the poor and elderly in the greatest economic and social need, focusing on legal issues that have an impact on basic needs including at least minimally adequate income, food, shelter, utilities, necessary medical care and freedom from domestic violence and abuse. ”
With few exceptions, CLS clients live at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which means the annual income ceiling of $14,850 for an individual and $30,375 for a family of four.
Data from the United States Census shows the San Luis Valley overall has 20.15 percent average poverty, well above the 12.7 percent statewide and 14.7 percent across the USA.
Alamosa is tops with 28.9 percent, followed by Costilla at 23.7, Saguache, 23.4, Rio Grande, 19.2, Conejos, 18.3 and Mineral, 7.6 percent.
Every year, CLS provides legal assistance, full representation, brief service or legal advice to more than 10,000 Coloradans, including families facing foreclosure or eviction, women trapped in abusive relationships, veterans denied rightfully earned benefits, seniors victimized by consumer scams and disabled individuals denied access to necessary health care.
Solving legal problems stabilizes families, gets low-income people back on their feet, and changes the arc of their lives. Without CLS, those who can’t afford counsel have nowhere else to turn. CLS is the place of last resort for low-income families, the disabled and seniors who are facing serious civil legal problems.