For 50 years, people accused of a crime have had the right to a defense lawyer, no matter whether they can afford to pay for one. But there’s no such guarantee when it comes to civil disputes — like evictions and child custody cases — even though they have a huge impact on people’s lives, says NPR. For decades, federal and state governments have pitched in to help. But money pressures mean the system for funding legal aid programs for the poor is headed toward a crisis.
All over the country, legal aid programs have had to be more choosey about the cases they accept. “The legal services system in the United States today is in a state of crisis,” says Jim Sandman, president of the national Legal Services Corp., which gives money to 135 aid programs all over the country. The traditional funding streams, from Congress and state governments, are under attack. Aside from government dollars, there’s another important source of financing for legal aid: interest that collects on trust accounts that lawyers set up for their clients. But because of record low interest rates, that money has hit record lows, too. Over the past couple of years, Sandman estimates, more than 1,200 people who work for legal aid programs — 1 in 7 — have lost their jobs. Offices in rural Arkansas and North Carolina have closed. But Sandman says more than 60 million people now qualify for civil legal aid.