RALEIGH, N.C. — Poor people who need help fighting a landlord or keeping government benefits can get an attorney for free through North Carolina legal aid programs, but new state budget cuts mean fewer may have that option.
Lawyers from the legal aid groups work for free on behalf of clients like Emma Moore of Henderson, who needs a power wheelchair to get around. She said a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney prevented her from getting thrown out of her apartment. She’s being represented again before another potential eviction over unintentional damage to her apartment.
“I would be out in the cold with no place to live,” Moore, 66, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford a lawyer to take my case.”
For years, the three leading legal aid groups have received state funds to represent people in civil matters in part through budget earmarks and a small portion of the fees from court filings and criminal cases. Legal aid funds already had been cut by more than half since 2008 to $2.7 million during the last fiscal year. This year the reduction looks deeper and permanent, and the reasons for the cuts remain unclear.
The state budget approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in June over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto eliminated the practice of setting aside $1.50 from each filing fee and repealed the law distributing funds for general legal services. Of the $1.1 million that remains, most will go to help represent domestic violence victims for protective orders or child custody matters.
Although the legal aid groups also get funds from other sources, their leaders said in interviews the new state cuts could mean nearly 35 attorneys and staff ultimately will be laid off, resulting in several thousand potential clients unable to get help each year.
“It’s part of the state’s safety net,” said Jim Barrett, executive director of Asheville-based Pisgah Legal Services, adding that legal assistance is “really what they need to get by, to get back on their feet.”
Barrett and others are perplexed by the spending cut and repeal of the Access to Civil Justice Act. Both initially surfaced in the House budget proposal without any previous public debate.
“I just don’t understand the rationale behind this,” said George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, the largest of the three groups. With 21 offices, 250 workers and a $22 million budget, Legal Aid of North Carolina gets 90,000 calls for assistance annually.
Hausen, other legal aid leaders and the House’s top budget writer pointed to Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain attorney, for the answer. Moore’s office “would have the details on those provisions,” senior budget chairman Rep. Nelson Dollar of Wake County said when asked about the origin of the cuts.
Moore spokesman Joseph Kyzer told The Associated Press that Moore had no comment. Kyzer did provide a funding chart for Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services in 2015 showing total state money comprising 17 percent of the groups’ funding.
Legal Aid of North Carolina will lose $1.3 million at a time when President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal called for eliminating all funding for Legal Services Corp., which distributes funds to state groups like Legal Aid. U.S. House budget writers are instead considering a roughly 25 percent reduction.
Hausen said he knows some critics believe the groups’ lawyers are too aggressive, but he said it’s all about working to prevent homelessness, reduce poverty and improve children’s health.
Legal aid advocates hope General Assembly members will reconsider the cut when they reconvene later this week. North Carolina Bar Association President Caryn McNeill said dwindling legal aid means more people will just try to represent themselves in court. Or they simply won’t try.
“People who can’t access our legal system and get fair and experienced adjudication of issues … don’t have any reason to trust the system,” McNeill said.