FRANKFORT, Ky. — Edna Bland had just adopted a child, her father was dying and her husband was having risky heart surgery when a mortgage company tried to take her house in 2009.
Because Bland had not been charged with a crime, she was not guaranteed the right to an attorney. A judge ruled against her, and the mortgage company tried to put a lock on her house.
“I called everything and everybody,” Bland said. “I felt like no one would fight for me.”
Eventually, Bland got help from AppalReD Legal Aid, a nonprofit that gives free legal services to the poor in civil court. An attorney filed for bankruptcy on her behalf and stopped the foreclosure proceedings. A year later, with the help of her children, Bland paid off her house. She still lives there.
Bland is one of tens of thousands of people every year who rely on one of four nonprofits in Kentucky that offer legal aid in non-criminal cases to people who can’t afford an attorney. But Kentucky could become the third state not to fund legal aid programs, joining Delaware and Idaho, according to the Legal Services Corporation. State lawmakers are considering cutting the program to save money in a budget crunch caused by massive pension liabilities and stagnant revenues.
The House of Representatives voted to fund the program at $1.27 million over the next two years. But the state Senate voted to eliminate that funding. Negotiations are ongoing in both chambers, which are controlled by Republicans.
“I’ve seen very little use of legal aid in my area, which I think is significant,” said Stivers, who represents Clay County, one of the poorest counties in the country.
The Kentucky Access to Justice Commission says the state’s four legal aid groups closed more than 20,000 cases last year that affected more than 55,000 people, including 2,500 military veterans. The cases include eviction proceedings, child custody matters, divorces and protective orders for victims of criminal domestic violence.
Amanda Young, director of Kentucky Legal Aid in western Kentucky, said her agency handled more than 7,000 cases last year, including helping some elderly clients qualify for Medicaid benefits so they can stay in a nursing home.
“It is, a lot of times, people that nobody else really sees,” Young said. “I’m not surprised (Stivers) might think we’re not doing anything.”
The biggest source of funding for the legal aid groups comes from the federal government through the Legal Services Corporation. Republican President Donald Trump recommended eliminating federal legal aid funding in his budget proposal, but Congress put the money back, plus an extra $25 million. Trump signed the spending package last week.
State tax dollars flow to the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission, which divides the money among four nonprofits that provide legal services in all 120 counties. If state funding is eliminated, the nonprofits say they likely would not have to close. But they would lose 14 of the 79 full-time attorneys who handle an average of about 250 cases each.
“We’re talking about hundreds of clients who would not be able to be served,” said Robert Johns, director of AppalReD Legal Aid in eastern Kentucky.
Kentucky’s two-year operating budget is still pending. The $1.27 million appropriation represents a tiny portion of the more than $70 billion in state and federal spending that is included in the two-year spending plan. But House leaders say they are pushing for legal aid funding to remain in the budget.
“It’s a relatively small amount of money that impacts a large amount of people,” Acting House Speaker David Osborne said.
Lawmakers are also getting lobbied by state Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller, chairwoman of the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission. She compared the courts to a hospital, which must provide health care to anyone who needs it regardless of their ability to pay.
“But without a lawyer to help these people, it totally clogs the system; it’s bad for everybody,” she said.