Legal Aid of Western Michigan hit by funding cuts

June 1, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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More than 2 million people in Michigan are poor enough to qualify for free legal aid in civil matters, even as federal funding of nonprofit legal aid organizations continues to go down. Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM), for example, just instituted what it calls “painful” cuts in services, as a result of a funding loss of almost $450,000 from its 2012 annual budget.

LAWM, which arranges free legal services for low-income persons and seniors in critical civil legal matters, had an annual budget of $4.35 million in 2011, providing services in 17 West Michigan counties from seven offices. On April 1, LAWM closed its Big Rapids office, laying off two attorneys and a secretary.

According to Michael Chielens, executive director of LAWM, these cuts are especially difficult at a time when the need for services is increasing due to high unemployment and an economy that is still weak.

“Our funding has not grown with the need, and, although we have been able to maintain services by tightening the belt over the past few years, we have seen a reduction in our federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation from $1.92 million in 2010 to $1.57 million in 2012 — more than 20 percent,” he said.

Funding from the State Bar IOLTA program also was cut more than $100,000 for 2012 due to the low interest rates on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts.

“There is just no way to absorb that without cutting staff and other major expenses,” said Chielens.

“Documenting the Justice Gap in Michigan,” a report released by the State Bar of Michigan this spring, focused on legal aid programs funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation. It revealed from 2000 to 2010, the number of persons who qualify for free legal aid because their annual income is below 125 percent of the federal poverty limit ($23,863 in 2012 for a family of three) has increased about 50 percent to more than 2 million individuals.

At the same time, the weak economy and high unemployment have increased certain legal problems, especially the threat of home foreclosure.

Funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation was cut 4 percent for 2011 and 15 percent for 2012, and LSC-funded programs also faced decreases in state funding. The combined total is about $2.2 million less annual funding for these programs throughout Michigan. The result is a loss of more than 40 staff, including 25.5 lawyers, three paralegals, 15.5 support staff and the closure of two offices. The bar report states Michigan’s LSC-funded programs normally handle some 40,000 cases per year, but with the reduced staff, it is likely there will be almost 7,000 fewer cases handled this year.

The report also notes LSC-funded programs are projected to face additional funding cuts of 10 percent in 2013.

Due to the increase of population under the poverty level and the cuts in legal aid funding, there is now one lawyer for about every 300 people in the general population, but only one legal aid lawyer for every 13,223 people under the poverty level, according to the report.

“A chronically challenging situation has now turned to crisis status,” the bar report stated.

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