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Potential Budget Cuts Would Have Dire Consequences for Civil Legal Aid


When the Mayor released her proposed FY25 budget on April 3, we learned that she proposed a 67% cut to the Access to Justice Initiative—a publicly funded program that supports the Access to Justice Grants Program, the Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program, and the DC Loan Repayment Assistance Program. A cut of this magnitude means that instead of receiving the requested $31.667 million, we would receive $10.457 million.  On April 25, I testified before the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, chaired by Ward 2 councilmember Brooke Pinto, about the catastrophic impact this cut would have on District residents and legal aid organizations. Dozens of other witnesses also gave testimony—an effort led by the DC Access to Justice Commission. (See the full list of individuals who gave testimony in support of the Access to Justice Initiative.)


The Foundation has served as the administrator of the Access to Justice initiative for the last 17 years, and for 10 of those years I have worked at the Foundation and witnessed the impactful change we—as a legal aid services community—have been able to make. The reality is that this budget cut means that we would be unable to fund many of the services DC residents with low or no income rely on when facing a crisis.


During testimony, I asked for level funding from FY24 ($31.667 million) and emphasized the two-fold impact of the proposed cut:


  1. The legal needs of thousands of District residents would go unmet. A budget cut would have an impact on residents who have figured out that they have a legal problem and seek help from a legal aid provider. And we should be fully aware that there are many, many people who do not even realize they have a legal problem who do not show up at any door for help. We know that people do not present with a single issue: a cut to legal aid is not felt solely among legal aid providers and those they serve.

  2. Years of the Council’s investment in systemic reform, community engagement, and collaboration will be lost. As just one example, after decades of conversation about the need for more coordination within the civil legal aid system, the Foundation has led a four-year effort to develop a Coordinated Intake and Referral (CIR) System among the more than 50 legal aid providers in DC, which would make it easier for DC residents to get legal aid assistance. We are within days of piloting the system, which we expect to launch fully in the first quarter of FY25. A budget cut would significantly impact the ability of this work to continue. We are so close.

 

We also must consider the impact a budget cut would have on public safety. Providing DC residents from vulnerable and marginalized communities with the resources they need to forge safe and stable environments for themselves and their families creates a better quality of life for the whole community. When legal aid successfully intervenes to help residents address issues related to domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, housing, financial wellbeing, and many other areas, the outcome is community resiliency and stability. Not being able to address these issues could inevitably impact public safety, creating additional burdens on District resources. 

 

A 67% cut to the Access to Justice Initiative could have a dire impact on housing. Programs like the Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program, which has helped more than 8,200 DC residents since its inception in 2018, would be gutted, leaving many tenants to face the possibility of being unhoused, which can, in turn, impact employment and family stability.

 

It is a critical time for legal aid, and we are keenly aware of the consequences this could have on DC residents, families, and communities. So many of you from within legal aid, as well as providers from other sectors and clients who have received services, raised your voices during public testimony to ask the DC Council to reject the mayor’s proposal and fund the Access to Justice Initiative at FY24 levels. It was powerful and spoke to the impact of the work we do together every day.

 

Thank you for lending your heartfelt testimony and stories. I am proud of how we advocated for our organizations and, more importantly, for the most vulnerable among us. Over the next several weeks, I encourage you to continue your outreach and advocacy campaigns to help keep the momentum going.

 

With gratitude,

Kirra L. Jarratt

Chief Executive Officer

 

 

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