Idaho Legal Aid Services provides a legal lifeline to low-income Idahoans with serious legal problems, including domestic violence, abuse and neglect of children, and elder abuse. It is Idaho’s largest nonprofit law firm, with offices located around the state. The dedicated work of Legal Aid is strongly supported by Idaho’s lawyers and judges.
Last year, the Idaho legal and judicial community commended Legal Aid for providing almost 20,000 hours of free legal services to thousands of Idahoans. Even though this is an impressive amount of help, it barely scratches the surface of the need that exists.
Many people go into court without a lawyer, simply because they can’t afford one. The courts have been helpful in trying to accommodate the needs of these self-represented people, but often the result is impairment of their legal rights and a slowing of court processes. Legal Aid protects the rights of litigants and helps move cases along. There just are not enough Legal Aid lawyers to fill the need, and that comes down to funding.
Much of the financial support comes from the federal Legal Services Corp., but that support has been declining in recent years. The federal budget for next fiscal year calls for cutting all of this funding. Legal Aid works hard to get grant funding, including from the legal community, but that simply does not do the job.
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Idaho is one of only three states that does not provide some form of state funding for low-income civil legal services. We can and must do better. It is important to ensure the protection of the legal rights of indigent and vulnerable Idahoans and to keep the legal system from getting bogged down by bewildered people unfamiliar with what they need to do.
Legal Aid is proposing legislation to set up a state account that will allow it to supplement its funding. The Children and Families Legal Services Fund, provided for in House Bill 532, would allow Legal Aid to collect funds from private grants, legislative appropriations and donations. The funds would be used to help low-income families with “domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, abused and neglected children, and senior abuse and exploitation.”
Money in the account could not be used for class-action lawsuits, criminal cases, reproductive issues, undocumented persons or suits against the state. The legislation does not appropriate state money. That would have to be done in separate legislation.
It is time for the state of Idaho to step forward to help low-income people with serious legal problems that affect all of us. House Bill 532 lays the groundwork for doing what 47 other states already do for their people. Upon passage of the bill, an appropriation of state funds should be made to provide the stability Legal Aid needs to carry on its important work.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and Supreme Court justice.