Draft of first Trump budget would cut legal aid for millions of poor Americans

Draft proposes elimination of Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal assistance to low-income people, victims of domestic violence and others

Legal Services Corporation handles cases involving disability benefits, disaster relief, elder abuse and much more.



The Legal Services Corporation handles cases involving disability benefits, disaster relief, elder abuse and much more.
Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Cuts in Donald Trump’s first draft budget to funding for legal aid for millions of Americans could strip much-needed protections from victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities, families facing foreclosure and veterans in need, justice equality advocates warned Tuesday.

A Trump draft budget circulated over the weekend called for the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which has a $375m annual budget and provides free legal assistance to low-income people and others in need of help, with cases involving disability benefits, disaster relief, elder abuse, fair pay, wheelchair access, low-income tax credits, unlawful eviction, child support, consumer scams, school lunch, predatory lending and much more.

The legal aid program, which represents a miniscule portion of the government’s projected $4tn budget, is one of many small but mighty programs flagged for elimination in Trump’s draft budget. Others include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Americorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Critics of the cuts point out that they won’t budge the deficit but would erode quality of life and threaten the most vulnerable.

The possible legal aid cuts would come at a time when potentially softer enforcement by the Trump administration of laws to punish domestic violence, protect Americans with disabilities and combat discriminatory housing practices could create a spike in demand, said Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who has written on the issue.

“We’ve already gotten an indication that they’re probably going to cut grants for domestic violence cases, VAWA-related grants, and that’s one of the biggest categories that legal aid grantees use,” Buckwalter-Poza said, referring to the Violence Against Women Act. “This is a huge blow to women in particular, and that’s devastating.

“And what’s so disturbing about the potential for the administration to eliminate LSC altogether is that at the same time, you have a Department of Justice that’s probably not going to enforce the types of legislation on the government’s side that supplements private action, like the Fair Housing Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act. And at the same time that they’re going to stop doing that, people are going to have fewer options for seeking out free legal assistance.”

Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association, the lawyers’ organization, said that the Legal Services Corporation assured “access to justice for all, the very idea that propelled our nation to independence”.

“Our nation’s core values are reflected in the LSC’s work in securing housing for veterans, freeing seniors from scams, serving rural areas when others won’t, protecting battered women, helping disaster survivors back to their feet, and many others,” Klein said in a statement. “Thirty cost-benefit analyses all show that legal aid returns far more benefits than costs to communities across America.”

The legal services corporation was created by a 1974 law, signed by Richard Nixon, acknowledging a “need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation”. The corporation helped an estimated 1.8m people in 2013, 70% of them women living near or below the poverty line. But studies indicate that legal aid offices turn away about 50% of clients in need owing to a lack of resources.

Trump’s proposed budget is not all – or even mostly – cuts. It emerged on Tuesday that the president had directed the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 more customs and immigration agents. Trump has vowed to build a border wall costing billions and to ramp up military spending.

Trump’s recently confirmed budget director, Mick Mulvaney, twice co-sponsored legislation as a member of Congress from South Carolina to abolish the Legal Services Corporation. Mulvaney told a home-state newspaper this week that he was about to become “the most hated man in Washington”.

Republicans going back to Ronald Reagan have opposed funding for the Legal Services Corporation and related funding, arguing in part that it was not the government’s responsibility to cover legal costs. As a 1973 federal racial discrimination lawsuit against Donald Trump and his real estate company illustrated, however, legal proceedings can be crucial to protecting American freedoms and rights against unsavory actors.

“These are obviously critical, livelihood-related, day-to-day issues for people who certainly can’t afford a lawyer on their own,” Buckwalter-Poza said.