The state Senate budget proposes to cut more than $2 million in legal aid funding, which could make it more difficult for North Carolina's poorest residents to defend their rights.
Under the Access to Civil Justice Act, a portion of court filing fees are given to legal aid groups in North Carolina—$1.8 million per year. The Senate’s budget bill cuts this funding. The Senate budget also eliminates the Access to Civil Justice Grant, which provided more than $670,000 to legal services in North Carolina last year.
Tazra Mitchell, policy analyst with the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, which is part of the North Carolina Justice Center, said the average annual income of legal aid recipients in North Carolina is around $12,000. The federal poverty line is around $24,000 yearly for a family of four.
“People living in poverty can barely make ends meet, so if they have a legal obstacle they have to overcome like being a victim of domestic violence, or fighting a scam, or trying to protect their home due to a faulty mortgage loan, the obstacle of attaining a lawyer is often out of their reach,” Mitchell said.
“To eliminate all state funding for legal aid agencies would be very detrimental,” she said. “We know the economy is not delivering prosperity for all North Carolinians. We know that one-in-five North Carolinians lives in poverty. We know that even people who live above the poverty line are still struggling to make ends meet.”
In February, the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission issued a report on the economic impact of legal aid in North Carolina. The report found that legal aid generated $48 million for North Carolina in 2012.
This money came from cost savings for local and state government in prevention of domestic violence, eviction and foreclosure, as well as the impact of new federal payments won in legal cases. This includes not only food stamp but also how that money is spent in the community.
The return investment for the state when it came to legal aid funding was 108 percent, which the study simplified by saying “for every dollar spent by the state to provide legal services, nearly $10 flows into the economy.”
Sean Driscoll, director of public relations for Legal Aid of North Carolina, laid out how the Senate budget’s cut would impact his organization.
“We are already only able to serve a fraction of people who need our help, and these cuts would further widen that gap. A cut this deep might force us to close offices and lay off staff, and could affect about 3,000 households,” Driscoll said.
While the Senate’s proposed budget eliminates funding both from filing fees and the direct grant, in the House’s proposed budget, funding from filing fees is restored while the Access to Civil Justice Grant is eliminated.
“Our state appropriation in 2007 was about $920,000 and has been cut every year since,” Driscoll said.