MidPenn Legal Services provides free legal representation for low-income Centre County residents, but President Donald Trump’s proposed budget released last week could threaten one of MidPenn’s main sources of funding.
Trump’s budget blueprint proposes the elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit corporation established in 1974 to provide free civil legal aid for low-income Americans who are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
LSC operates with an annual federally funded budget of almost $400 million, some of which is allocated to MidPenn Legal Services.
MidPenn was established in 2000 and serves 18 counties in central Pennsylvania. The nonprofit, public-interest law firm operates with an annual budget of $7 million. MidPenn receives about $2.5 million dollars annually from the LSC, according to Rhodia Thomas, executive director.
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“We think of ourselves as a legal emergency room for low-income people,” Thomas said. “We provide vulnerable people with civil legal aid for handling problems such as domestic violence, landlord-tenant disputes and some custody disputes. Often we are the last stop for people with no where else to turn.”
In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, MidPenn spent almost 3,000 hours litigating just more than 400 cases involving about 900 residents of Centre County.
The Centre County office operates with about a $1 million annual budget, and if Trump’s proposed budget passes, the office is expected to lose $350,000.
To cut costs, Thomas said, MidPenn will have to increase the amount of telephone advice, which Thomas said does not provide clients with the representation they often need. The office will also cutback on the amount of time MidPenn’s three lawyers spend in the courtroom, which could stress the county’s legal system, Thomas said.
“When we have lawyers in the courtroom it allows for the legal process to run more smoothly as opposed to when a person is self-represented,” Thomas said. “It allows judges to be judges and not have to take time explaining the legal process. This means cases will move more expeditiously.”
Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler said low-income Centre County residents have been well-represented by MidPenn for decades.
“Any services provided by a legal services group like MidPenn are invaluable to good outcomes for people who don’t have the funds to represent themselves,” Kistler said. “The court believes any time parties are represented, it’s more likely to be a process that leads to a just result.”
Nonprofit corporations have restrictions determined by the federal government that prevent MidPenn from lobbying local and state government officials to support LSC funding, according to Thomas. But she added that organizations such as the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, which provides about 42 percent of MidPenn’s annual budget, can advocate on their behalf.
Almost 150 of MidPenn’s 2015-2016 cases involved domestic violence and without the funding, some Centre County residents may not receive the help they need in potentially dangerous situations, according to Thomas.
“Ultimately we’re here to help the most vulnerable people get access to legal services so situations such as domestic violence don’t spiral out of control,” Thomas said. “These people often need our services so they can keep their children and families safe.”