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Why we need to fund civil legal aid.

The DC community is at a critical juncture, and the decisions we make now will impact what the District's recovery from the pandemic looks like a decade from now and beyond. Building back better is the opportunity of our lifetime, and it is our moral and civic duty to do so.

When I had the opportunity to testify during the public hearing on Mayor Bowser's Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request, I asked for a significant increase in Access to Justice Initiative funding – from $12M to $20M. As the leading funder of civil legal aid in the District, the DC Bar Foundation is uniquely positioned to be an essential partner in the District's recovery as we seek to stabilize and improve the quality of life for residents impacted the most by the pandemic.

As I elaborated in my testimony, an investment in the civil legal aid network now will also save the District millions of dollars over time. Failing to fund civil legal aid now means the District will incur increased long-term costs related to a variety of services, like those required for unhoused persons, victims of domestic violence, and emergency health care – as well as lost tax revenue. Research from other jurisdictions around the country shows a return on investment of 5 to 12 times the amount spent on civil legal aid.

Below is a breakdown of anticipated costs:

  • The Access to Justice Program ($12.5M) gives vulnerable District residents a fairer shot at civil justice through access to legal assistance and representation. The program keeps District families in their homes, protects consumers in the marketplace, and increases service access for vulnerable District residents like the elderly, children, and people with disabilities. It also provides training and technical assistance to our frontline legal aid attorneys and organizations.

  • The Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program (CLCPP) ($7.2M) is a vital tool that helps District residents avoid eviction and stay in their homes by preserving units of affordable housing that might otherwise be lost upon eviction. CLCPP is a cost-effective way to keep families in their homes and avoid homelessness.

  • The DC Poverty Lawyer Loan Repayment Assistance Program ($.3M) helps legal aid attorneys pay off their educational debt and is a critical tool for recruiting and maintaining a talented, passionate, and diverse corps of legal services lawyers.

For more than a year, the civil legal aid network has provided essential access to legal services to District residents in need as the city implemented new systems, processes, and policies due to shelter-in-place orders. When unemployment rates skyrocketed, an influx of residents found themselves seeking help from the civil legal aid network for the first time in their lives.

In addition, as the District reopens, many of us are concerned that it will take substantial funding to help people access secure housing once the moratorium on evictions is lifted. The demand for legal services will also increase as people feel more comfortable seeking legal services for domestic violence and family custody as health concerns around COVID-19 wanes.

We also know that District residents of color suffered the most during this pandemic. An increase in funding would help sustain and support innovations, such as the civil legal aid network infrastructure, that will make our civil justice system easier for District residents to access at this crucial time.

As we all look forward to enjoying our newly reopened city and regaining a collective sense of normalcy, I know that the effects of the pandemic will be with many of us for years to come, and for some of us, a lifetime. Our goal is to ensure that the civil legal aid network can provide equitable access to justice to residents in need as the Districts recovers.

With gratitude, Kirra L. Jarratt Chief Executive Officer

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