Salena Copeland, 510-893-3000 x106
Lorin Kline, 510-893-3000 x105
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 27, 2017
SACRAMENTO – On Tuesday, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California State Budget, including increased funding for legal aid. California lawmakers passed the state’s budget on June 15th following months of hearings and negotiations. That budget, now carrying the Governor’s final approval, contains more than $20 million dollars in new funding for civil legal aid through the state’s Equal Access Fund.
“I am extremely grateful for all our champions in the legislature who recognize what a difference a legal aid attorney can make in the lives of low-income individuals in legal crisis. Senator Bob Wieckowski, in particular, has been our most vocal champion in urging his colleagues to invest in civil legal aid,” said Salena Copeland, the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC).
This increase still puts California behind many other states in its funding of civil legal aid, but the impact of the additional dollars will be huge. If the increase were used exclusively to hire legal aid attorneys, it could add up to 100 attorneys who could serve as many as 30,000 people.
Civil legal aid is critical for many California families. In the Bay Area, for example, families struggle to stay housed in the face of skyrocketing rents. Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, a recipient of Equal Access Fund dollars, helped over 150 families stay in their homes last year. And in 2015, they negotiated an agreement that allowed 70 families to remain in a Redwood City apartment complex for an extra nine months, giving them the time and assistance they needed to safely relocate. Civil legal aid protects vulnerable families by providing them with equal access to justice in the form of a lawyer to help them navigate the system. Without legal aid, many of these families would have ended up homeless. A lack of adequate funding, however, severely limits the amount of assistance legal aid can offer.
The state budget funds legal aid each year through an item in the Judicial Branch’s budget called the Equal Access Fund. The Fund was created in 1999 as a partnership between the courts and legal aid, and it remains a critical component of support for California legal aid. With this funding, nearly 100 organizations across the state provide free legal assistance to low-income Californians, people with disabilities, and seniors. Legal aid helps people with life problems such as foreclosure, unemployment, health access, and domestic violence.
The Legal Aid Association of California, along with advocates from many of its member legal aid organizations, advocated for an increase to the Equal Access Fund this year. The Equal Access Fund was funded at $10 million at its creation, and in the nearly two decades since, with the exception of a one-time increase last year, it has remained stagnant.
The Budget includes an additional $10 million in the Equal Access Fund for each of the next two years. Therefore, on top of the $10 million base amount, the Equal Access Fund will contain a total of $20 million in general funds in 2018, that increase promised for 2019 as well. This increase will make a significant impact to legal aid organizations, meaning more services available to more Californians.
“The increase will be critical to maintaining lifesaving legal services for California’s poorest residents. This is particularly important given threatened federal budget cuts which imperil the existence of the federal Legal Services Corporation,” said Jith Meganathan, a member of LAAC’s Board of Directors, a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and integral in the effort.
In addition to the Equal Access Fund increase, the budget includes an additional set-aside of funding for legal aid. The new provision mandates that 25% of all California state cy pres awards (funds remaining after class action settlements have compensated class members) will go to the Equal Access Fund and another 25% will go to court projects including collaborative courts and Sargent Shriver Civil Right to Counsel grants. This provision is included in AB 103, a budget trailer bill that Governor Brown also signed on Tuesday. Cy pres funds have historically benefited a diverse array of nonprofit organizations, including legal aid. Through development of judicial education measures, continued involvement as amicus curiae in relevant litigation, and by collaborating with other organizations, the Legal Aid Association of California is committed to ensuring cy pres funds continue to support the entire nonprofit community.
With the smaller, one-time increase to the fund in 2017, legal aid organizations increased their impact by hiring multiple one-year legal fellows, expanded an Asian Language Legal Intake Project to include a Tagalog hotline, launched a campaign to combat a threat to affordable housing in Los Angeles, provided clinics in rural areas of the state previously lacking services, and created many other projects. The entire community looks forward to the work that will be made possible by the funding increase.
Copeland is hopeful for the future, stating, “A legal aid attorney helps level the playing field in cases where the system sometimes just doesn’t seem fair, and increasing funding for legal aid shows that the legislature believes in a fair system of justice.”
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