Proposed cuts to Philadelphia Legal Assistance called 'devastating'

The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget would have a devastating impact on Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which provides legal services to low-income people, and would likely cause it to close its doors, its executive director said Tuesday.

Anita Santos-Singh said that Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which represented 5,345 Philadelphia residents in 2016 in areas of family law, health-care access, housing and other matters, said the group gets about 70 percent of its annual $4.3 million budget from the federally funded Legal Services Corp., which is facing the budget ax and would be eliminated under the president’s proposed budget.

“With that level of funding, we would likely have to shut our doors,” Santos-Singh said.

Philadelphia has a large network of public interest legal groups such as Philadelphia Legal Assistance, and a long tradition of providing free legal services to low-income people. And while much of that legal work is done by lawyers in private practice who donate their time, it seems unlikely that stepped up volunteer work by private firm lawyers could fill that gap, if the funds are cut, Santos-Singh said.

That’s because lawyers on the staff of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and other public-interest legal groups have experience and expertise on the tangled legal issues facing the poor that pro bono lawyers from outside law firms typically lack, steeped as they are in matters affecting paying commercial clients.

Philadelphia Legal Assistance serves clients who meet federal guidelines for low-income people  and in this instance a family of four could earn up to $4,100 a month and qualify for legal aid.

The Legal Services Corp. has come under sustained attack before from Republican budget cutters who argue that American culture needs less litigation, not more.

But on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) have been circumspect on individual budget line items, given that there will be many changes before the budget is adopted. Toomey has not taken a position on the legal services corporation proposal, but has praised Trump for his overall budget cutting approach.

"After years of overspending, I am encouraged that the president has proposed actual spending cuts," he said in a statement.

Public interest legal groups have powerful supporters, both in and outside the legal profession.

On Monday, Philadelphia Bar chancellor Deborah Gross issued a statement opposing the elimination of the Legal Services Corp., arguing that it more than pays for itself by reducing homelessness, averting domestic violence, and helping residents secure health care.

“Eliminating funding for legal services poses a threat to our entire community,” Gross maintained. “Denying funding for civil legal aid prevents access to justice for all.”

Debby Freedman, executive director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, a related public-interest group, said cuts to Philadelphia Legal Assistance would only increase pressure on other agencies that provide legal representation to low income people.

“It would really be a devastating blow to struggling families in Philadelphia,” she said.