Shrinking State Budgets Affect Access to Justice

Shrinking state budgets and funding cuts are causing not only delays in how state courts deliver justice (see Gavel Grab), they’re also affecting the ability of low-income people to get needed legal help.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month in a case involving the collision of state fiscal restraints and a poor defendant’s right to a lawyer. Jared Blacksher (at center, in photo), accused of theft, requested representation from the Missouri Public Defender’s office. He was denied it because the area office had reached a maximum caseload for that month. A judge ordered the office to represent Blacksher anyway.

A St. Louis Public Radio report discusses the underlying issues in the case, and a Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times Leader article mentions the case in a national context. “Claiming they are underfunded and overworked, a growing number of public defenders throughout the nation are challenging the government entities that control their purse strings by refusing to take new cases,” the article explains. In the New York Times, an older article about the Blacksher case was headlined, “Budget woes hit defense lawyers for the indigent.”

On the civil assistance side, Congress voted last year to slash federal dollars for civil legal assistance to poor people by about 14 percent, from $404.2 million to $348 million, according to a Wall Street Journal blog report. The Legal Services Corporation said that is the lowest level since 2007, and according to a survey of independent civil legal aid programs it funds, 2012 will bring an expected loss of 1,226 full-time personnel compared with 2010 levels.

“We are experiencing the consequences of a wholesale reduction in so-called discretionary spending, but access to justice is not a discretionary issue in America,” said Jim Sandman, president of LSC. “We think funding for legal services should be correlated to the increase in the size of the poverty population.”

Meanwhile state courts across the country are wrestling with the impact of funding cuts. Among the latest media reports on the topic were these: “Task Force On Ohio Court Funding Moving Forward,” WOUB News; “Showdown over California courts coming to a head,” San Jose Mercury News;  and “Shrinking State Court Budgets: Not Just A New York Thing,” from the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog.


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