April 29, 2009

DC Judiciary Committee votes to protect civil legal services

Some good news on the legal services front!

Yesterday, the DC Council Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to maintain funding for civil legal services for low income DC residents.

Under the approved budget, more than $3.5 million will be allocated for civil legal services (including loan repayment for eligible lawyers). This is essentially the same amount of funding that was allocated to legal services for the poor in the FY 2009 budget. Considering the fact that this funding stream is just barely older than the economic downturn, and given the scale of DC's current budget crisis, it is no small beans to see the funding maintained.

The need for civil legal services in low income communities has always been vast – 97% of defendants in landlord/tenant cases lack representation. With the foreclosure crisis and economic turmoil, that need is only intensifying. The Judiciary Committee clearly recognizes how vital these services are to our community: its vote is in support of programs like the Court Based Legal Services Program—in which Bread for the City, the Legal Aid Society, and the Neighborhood Legal Services Program place lawyers on site in court to meet with tenants on the critical first day of litigation—and like Project HELP, the subject of this great recent WaPo feature.

And yet, this victory is not yet certain: the recommended budget must be approved by City Council. (The full Council will consider the budget on May 12th.) You can help by express your thanks to Chair of the Committee, Phil Mendelson, and the other Committee members: Mary Cheh, Jack Evans, Murial Bowser, and Yvette Alexander. In fact, take any opportunity to tell any Councilmember how important it is to fund civil legal services, now even moreso than ever before.

In the meantime, many thanks to Sunil Mansukhani, Executive Director of the DC Access to Justice Commission, for his great work on this issue, along with Bread for the City Attorney Su Sie Ju, who also sits on the Commission. (See our previous coverage of the Access to Justice Commission here.)

In other news, we're excited for Patty Mullahy Fugere, Executive Director of Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, for winning the DC Bar's 2009 Brennan Award. Congratulations, Patty!

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