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Bar Leaders Sound Alarm on Steep Cuts to D.C. Civil Legal Aid Funding

April 26, 2024

By Jeremy Conrad

D.C. Bar President Charles R. Lowery Jr. and D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Executive Director Kelli Neptune joined more than 50 representatives of legal services organizations on April 25 in calling for the restoration of more than $21 million in access to justice funding that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is seeking to cut in her fiscal year 2025 budget proposal.

A 67 percent decrease in funding for the Access to Justice Initiative, which issues grants to more than 30 community-based organizations through the DC Bar Foundation, means drastic reduction in essential free legal help to low-income District residents, legal services advocates said in their testimony before D.C. Council.

During the budget oversight hearings, a picture emerged of the communities impacted by the initiative’s funding. Children, families, and senior citizens were commonly the recipients of services to address housing insecurity, health care, and truancy.

Charles R. Lowery Jr.On behalf of the Bar and its past presidents, Lowery expressed strong support for the restoration of Access to Justice Initiative funding to fiscal year 2024 levels. “This program is a model for the nation, and we are grateful to the District government for its support. [The] funding has been transformative in providing essential legal assistance to low-income District residents.”

“The drastic cut to this effective program will be catastrophic for District residents, and it will put the safety, health, housing, and economic stability of the District’s most vulnerable residents at risk, placing them even further in jeopardy,” Lowery said. “A severe reduction of initiative funding will be especially damaging because the community needs continue to rise. There is already a staggering unmet need for civil legal help.”

“Civil legal aid helps District residents navigate complicated issues and protect their families,” Lowery continued. “Without it, our community’s challenges will increase, as unaddressed legal problems spiral into additional crises. Providing legal help early is good for the community and relieves the burden on government agencies.”

In her testimony, Neptune said Access to Justice Initiative funding is also critical to the Pro Bono Center’s ability to meet the needs of the most vulnerable Black and Brown District residents living on low incomes “who have been historically left out, left struggling, and left behind.”

“We are the largest provider of pro bono legal assistance in the District of Columbia. Our organization leverages the power of volunteer attorneys to serve more than 21,000 individuals and 5,000 nonprofits and small businesses each year,” Neptune said.

Kelli NeptuneAccording to Neptune, the initiative funds a third of the Pro Bono Center’s budget and nearly a third of its staff. “Due to this funding, last year the Pro Bono Center provided legal information and representation to more than 2,800 District residents in eviction proceedings and other housing matters. The [Landlord Tenant Legal Assistance Network], a partnership with five other organizations, is operated out of the Pro Bono Center. Fifty-two percent of callers were [from] Wards 7 and 8 with income below $20,000,” Neptune said.

In a statement, the D.C. Access to Justice Commission said that the proposed budget undermines critical community priorities like housing stability, public safety, and economic progress. “[The budget cuts] will have catastrophic consequences for the almost 40,000 District residents who receive life-changing civil legal services from District nonprofits through the program each year,” the commission said.

Decreased funding will also have significant impacts on more than 200 District agencies and community organizations like health clinics, schools, libraries, and social services agencies that serve vulnerable populations in the District, the commission added.

Public hearings relating to the budget will continue through May 3.

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