Possible Cuts in Washington Could Have Negative Impact on State's Most Vulnerable Disaster Survivors

Mar 5, 2017

The telephone intake center at SC Legal Service in Columbia. On average, the law firm receives 25,000 calls a year from low-income residents in need of legal assistance.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/SC Public Radio

Months after the historic 2015 flood, Rhonda Simpkins turned on her furnace and watched green mold cover her home. Denials from FEMA, SBA and her homeowner's insurance led her to South Carolina Legal Services. The nonprofit law firm was able to help Simpkins and others. Now, potential budget cuts in Washington has the firm concerned the work it provides, to help the state's most vulnerable residents recover from disasters and navigate the legal system, could also be cut.

In 2016, South Carolina Legal Services closed 8,112 civil cases for low income residents. The nonprofit, state-wide law firm has nine offices across the state with 50 attorneys on staff. More than half the law firm's budget comes from Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Last year, LSC appropriated $5,755,483 to South Carolina Legal Services. It's FY 2017 requests for South Carolina is $7,635,827.

Jim Sandman is president of LSC. He said the percentage of LSC's congressional appropriation a grantee like South Carolina Legal Services receives depends on what other sources are available in that state.

"Our grantees in 12 states get more than half of their funding from LSC and many of them service rural areas, where there aren't a lot of lawyers in private practice able to do pro bono work."

The organization distributes more than 93% of its federal appropriation to eligible nonprofits that deliver civil legal aid. LSC awards grants through a competitive process and currently funds 134 independent legal aid organizations.

"It is very difficult to navigate the legal system in the United States, if you don't have a lawyer. What legal aid does is provide legal assistance to people, who because of their economic means, are unable to afford to pay for one," Sandman said. I think that is as fundamental an American value you can get," he added.

From LSC's FY 2017 Budget Request, this infographic shows the geographic location of eligible client population.
Credit www.lsc.gov

Sandman said the list of programs the White House Budget office has drafted for possible elimination is not a new list.

"This particular list has been around for a long time. Its been around for at least 20 years. What is new here is the suggestion that the office of management and Budget, as a part of the budget they propose for Congress to consider, might recommend the elimination of LSC.

"We have, over time, demonstrated very strong bipartisan support in Congress. That support has actually grown in recent years.

In the past, Sandman said there have been efforts, through amendments proposed on the flood of the  House of Representatives, to eliminate the organization. He said, they never came close to succeeding.

"We have, over time, demonstrated very strong bipartisan support in Congress. That support has actually grown in recent years, so I am optimistic about what our fate is."

Inside her Bull street office in downtown Columbia, South Carolina Legal Services Executive Director Andrea Loney runs through a list of types of cases attorneys at the law firm assist with.

"Family law, consumer cases, probate, education; we do a lot of foreclosure prevention, eviction representation and any type of legal representation in the civil arena," she said. On a table in her office, is a stack of papers that show where South Carolina Legal Services gets its funding and how the firm spends the money.

"The major part of our budget is in the personnel line item. So any type of significant reduction in our budget is going to entail a reduction in our staffing."

Andrea Loney, South Carolina Legal Services Executive Director
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/SC Public Radio

Loney said a reduction in staff will have "an absolute negative impact" on the number of low income people the law firm will be able to serve.

"Even if we have to layoff support staff and not layoff attorneys, it still will impact the number of clients that we are able to help."

According to LSC, its estimated  that 59.4 million Americans will be financially eligible for services at LSC grantees. In its 2017 Budget Request, the organization notes that is a nearly a 17% increase, since 2007. Twenty percent of South Carolina's population is financially eligible to receive services.

South Carolina Legal Services publishes a number of legal education brochures that are shared with the public.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/SC Public Radio

"Obviously, even with the funding we have now, we are unable to represent everybody that's actually financially qualified for our services," Loney said. In 2016, the law firm closed 8,112 cases. But the executive director added the firm also helps organizations.

"We offer a lot of legal education events to the staff of other agencies to help them understand the rights and responsibilities of their clients, so that they are able to provide legal information, not legal advice, for the people that they are serving."

Rhonda Simpkins is an intake paralegal at South Carolina Legal Services. Their intake office was flooded during the historic 2015 rain event and flood.

"We had to work upstairs, on the top floor in the conference room off of laptops." She said, a new work space was her first displacement experience because of the flood.

"People were experiencing all kinds of challenges, and I'm sitting there taking their calls and talking with them, and taking their information and thinking to myself, how awful this must be for them."

Simpkins said a few weeks later, she would experience being displaced again. She said she would also be in the same position as those she was helping for her work.

We had a cold snap. I turned the furnace on and everything in the house went completely green. It occurred to me, that I needed to call FEMA, so I did.

Simpkin's FEMA, SBA and homeowner's insurance claims were all denied. "Once again, this is all tied into something I hear everyday, and I can really relate to the fear that people have."

She said SC Legal Services helped her with appealing FEMA and also educated her on how to vet the right rebuild companies to work on her home.

"Fortunate for me, I happen to work at SC Legal Services. So I had certain resources that were available to me more readily than the people who were calling from outside."

Simpkins has worked for the law firm for 19 years and called it life-sustaining. When asked her thoughts on a possible budge cut, she replied, "it worries me a great deal. But I have faith that Legal Services will do what we have to do to make sure that the working poor have a right to legal services and protection.