The cuts to the Access to Justice Initiative in Mayor Bowser’s proposed FY24 budget would be catastrophic for low-income District residents and the civil justice system.
Read the Commission’s statement HERE.
THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF THIS BUDGET CUT
The Mayor’s proposed FY24 budget includes a $18.672M reduction in the Access to Justice Initiative, from $31.69M to $13.018M. This means less help for the thousands of District residents who receive life-changing civil legal services from District non-profits through the program on issues that matter – safety, health, housing, and economic stability.
- Housing instability among District residents will certainly grow. Over 50% of FY23 Initiative funding supports eviction-prevention efforts that have been proven to be effective at a time when the current number of evictions, calls for help among tenants, and open cases in court is rising at rates upwards of 250-450% from prior years.
- District residents will be less safe. Reduced funding puts programs that offer help to victims of domestic- and gender-based violence and combat recidivism at risk.
- The District community’s economic stability will be impacted. Services that combat economic risk and inopportunity, address employment-related problems, and help District residents access vital benefit programs are also in jeopardy.
- This will increase the vulnerability of thousands of District residents. District children, elders, individuals with disabilities, the immigrant community, and other special populations will lose access to programs targeted at serving their unique needs.
To learn more about the Access to Justice Initiative, read our FY24 budget request to Mayor Bowser
THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT REDUCTION FROM FY23
The FY23 Local Budget Act includes $31.689M for the Access to Justice Initiative – another historic investment in this effective social justice program. This funding provides:
- $3M to expand the District’s eviction diversion model to prevent eviction (doubling of FY22 funding)
- $11M to support more eviction-related legal representation (an increase of $3M from FY22)
- $16.739M to expand legal programs in other areas of need, including $1M to support a “no wrong door” coordinated intake and referral system (an increase of $4M from FY22)
- $950,000 to fund loan repayment assistance to support District legal services attorneys
Read our FY22 and FY23 Performance Oversight Testimony and please read the DC Bar Foundation’s testimony that provides a thorough overview of the Initiative and its impact.
WHAT IS THE ACCESS TO JUSTICE INITIATIVE?
Learn more about the Initiative’s Civil Justice Impact and Initiative’s Housing Justice efforts and the results.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
- Thank the DC Council and Mayor Bowser for their support.
- Use social media to raise the profile of the Access to Justice Initiative and its important work. If using Twitter, tag the D.C. Access to Justice Commission (@DCATJComm) and the DC Bar Foundation (@dcbarfoundation) and use the tagline #dcciviljustice.
- Click HERE for advocacy tools, including sample tweets and Twitter cards (e-mail to be updated soon).
To learn more about the Commission’s budget advocacy, watch this space and also contact the Commission’s Executive Director Nancy Drane at email@example.com
CIVIL JUSTICE IS ESSENTIAL
Each year, the D.C. Access to Justice Commission asks Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council to support and expand the funding available to the Access to Justice Initiative to address the civil justice crisis in our community. Link to the Commission’s FY24 budget request here.
We know that the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately impacted low-income District residents, especially communities of color. But the District faced a civil justice crisis long before the emergence of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, we saw staggeringly high rates of litigants (75-97%+) forced to handle their legal problems without legal help. Limited resources left gaps in available services in critical areas of human need. So the need was already great and now, with COVID-19, it is all the more urgent.
With increased funding, we can build on what we’ve learned during COVID-19 and the innovations we’ve embraced in order to come back stronger as a community.
Investment in civil legal aid is a sound, public investment that benefits the District community. Legal services providers are well positioned to do more as we emerge from the pandemic and should be leveraged as part of the District’s pandemic solution.
WHY IS CIVIL LEGAL AID SO IMPORTANT
The Access to Justice Initiative is an essential part of the District’s safety net and key to recovery. An equitable recovery means having resources available and ensuring meaningful access to them. Access to legal help is critical when District residents face wrongful denials, errors in calculating benefit awards, and legal disputes that need to be litigated in our administrative and court tribunals. Initiative programs support the fundamentals of life – the roof over your head (evictions and foreclosures); the stability of your family (child custody, child support, guardianships); personal safety (protection against abuse); and financial sustenance (access to public benefits, protection from unscrupulous debt collectors, ability to file for bankruptcy). Legal providers have been on the front lines since the pandemic began, doing affirmative outreach, solving problems, and helping District residents deal with the impact of COVID-19.
District residents’ need for civil legal help continues to be great. The District faced a civil justice crisis before the pandemic, when 75-97% of litigants in high-stakes legal cases lacked counsel. Providers were unable to meet the demand even before COVID-19 worsened civil legal needs. This crisis has grown in the shadow of COVID-19: A 300% increase in calls to a domestic violence clinic & one year’s worth of clients in 3 months; A 40% increase in complaints about financial scams and frauds perpetrated against DC residents; 4 times the number of unemployment appeals in context of 200,000+ pandemic UI requests; over 5,000 tenants & small landlords served through legal phone line, even with eviction moratorium; and over 1,000 calls from unrepresented litigants seeking help in family law cases. Providers will be overwhelmed as courthouses reopen and moratoria expire, with debt collection attorneys planning to file at least a thousand cases per month once moratoria expire, and, even with rental support available, legal assistance being essential to tide a wave of eviction filings.
The Initiative is a social justice program that works. The Initiative is a sound, public investment that benefits the broader District community. For 15 years, the Initiative has helped tens of thousands of low-income residents understand their rights and solve a wide range of civil legal problems. The Access to Justice Grants Program gives vulnerable District residents access to legal assistance and representation, keeping families in their homes, protecting consumers in the marketplace, and increasing access for vulnerable District residents (e.g., elderly, children, people with disabilities). The Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program helps District residents avoid eviction and stay in their homes by preserving units of affordable housing that might otherwise be lost; it is a cost-effective way to keep families in their homes and avoid homelessness and addresses power imbalance in court. The D.C. Poverty Lawyer Loan Repayment Assistance Program is a critical tool for recruiting and maintaining a talented, passionate, diverse corps of legal services lawyers.
We must do more to meet the need for civil legal help, but can only do that with greater resources. Legal services must be part of the solution as we emerge from the pandemic.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CIVIL LEGAL NEEDS IN THE DISTRICT
Read the Commission’s Delivering Justice report
MORE BACKGROUND ON THE DISTRICT’S PUBLIC FUNDING INITIATIVE
Each year since 2006, the Commission has advocated for and secured a local public funding stream—the Access to Justice Initiative —to support the provision of civil legal services. The funds are granted by the city to the DC Bar Foundation, which developed and administers the Access to Justice Grants Initiative. The Initiative was established with the explicit goals of increasing representation in housing–related cases and expanding services to underserved communities. Grants awarded by the D.C. Bar Foundation through this program have greatly advanced these goals. Access to Justice funds pay for dozens of lawyers who serve low–income and underserved residents in some of the poorest parts of the city. The funds have also dramatically expanded geographic access to services, more than doubling the number of attorneys working east of the Anacostia River.
The Access to Justice grants have greatly enhanced the provision of services to indigent residents facing loss of their homes. They support a variety of court-based legal services projects, through which lawyers from different legal services providers provide same day representation to litigants in a variety of legal matters.
The Access to Justice grants also support a nationally acclaimed Community Legal Interpreter Bank that provides free interpretation services to legal services clients who are not proficient in English or who are deaf or hearing impaired. Although these residents are entitled to interpretation services in court, without this crucial language access resource they would not be able to communicate effectively with legal services attorneys to solicit help and to prepare their cases.
The Loan Repayment Assistance Program, administered by the D.C. Bar Foundation, is also supported by the grants. The program helps legal services lawyers who live and work in the District to repay crushing law school debts. A parallel poverty lawyer loan repayment program funded and run by the Bar Foundation also reaches poverty lawyers to work in the District, but live in nearby Maryland or Virginia. Without these programs, many passionate and dedicated advocates would be unable to sustain public interest careers. They also ensure that legal services providers can attract and retain diverse and talented staff.
In fiscal year 2018 a new publicly funded program was created through the appropriation of an additional $4.5 million in public funding to support a landmark program to support the legal representation of low-income tenants facing eviction. The Civil Legal Counsel Program, administered by the District of Columbia Bar Foundation, supports both limited and extended representation in eviction matters, brief advice and other legal services, and enables legal services providers to leverage their resources to support the efforts of pro bono lawyers in private practice assisting in these cases. The program builds on the Housing Initiative, an effort launched by the Commission and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center in 2015 to bring together legal services organizations and the private bar in addressing the growing housing crisis in our District. The additional resources have vastly expanded the number of attorneys doing eviction defense and present to assist clients through court-based programs.
The District of Columbia government has truly become a national leader in the public support of civil legal services. In fiscal year 2023, the District appropriated a record level $31.689 million to support the Access to Justice Initiative. The Commission is proud of its role in encouraging this strong partnership of support to low-income District residents in need of legal services.
For more information on Access to Justice Initiative programs, visit https://dcbarfoundation.org/our-grantees/.