Governor Brown signs state budget including an increase in legal aid funding
Salena Copeland, 510-893-3000 x106
Lorin Kline, 510-893-3000 x105
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 27, 2018
SACRAMENTO – On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California State Budget. California lawmakers passed the state’s budget on June 14th following months of hearings and negotiations. That budget, now carrying the Governor’s final approval, contains $20 million dollars in funding for civil legal aid through the state’s Equal Access Fund. The budget provides a continuation of last year’s one-time allocation, providing legal aid with much needed stability and ongoing support. The budget also includes a $19.1 million increase in funding for court self-help centers, often the first stop for low-income people who don’t qualify for legal aid.
“I think it’s clear that our legislature and our Governor recognize how important attorneys are right now. This is the first ongoing increase of general fund support for legal aid, and it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that it happened this year. The legislature and Governor are investing more in legal aid attorneys and in immigration attorneys.” said Salena Copeland, the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC).
The Equal Access Fund, part of the Judicial Branch’s budget, was funded at $10 million at its creation in 1999. In the nearly two decades since, it has largely remained stagnant. With this funding, nearly 100 organizations across the state provide free legal assistance to low-income Californians, people with disabilities, and seniors. This assistance addresses major life problems for people in need such as immigration, foreclosure, unemployment, health access, and domestic violence.
Thanks to the fervent advocacy of the Legal Aid Association of California and advocates from many of its member legal aid organizations, the Equal Access Fund has finally seen some new support in recent years. The fund increased with one-time increases in 2017 to $15 million and in 2018 to $20 million. Now in 2018, as we plan for 2019, those increases, which were only granted as one-time supports, remain in the budget as an ongoing increase.
As we saw last year, the increase in the Equal Access Fund made a significant impact to legal aid organizations, meaning more services available to more Californians. Now those organizations can continue to provide those expanded services. The outcome of this year’s budget process will provide stability to legal services providers and ongoing and reliable services to the vulnerable Californians they assist.
California continues to fall behind many other states in its funding of civil legal aid, but civil legal aid is critical for many California families. Organizations receiving Equal Access Fund support provided significant services over the past year. California Indian Legal Services, for example, continued to serve tribal children and to serve those they do not have capacity to help, they trained Tribal Indian Welfare social workers on how to advocate for tribal children removed from their homes. California Rural Legal Assistance expanded their services to the indigenous farmworker community, providing second and third attorneys in several of their most rural offices. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund worked to help legal services lawyers address the health care impacts resulting from the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Numerous organizations were able to expand their work to serve more clients in need.
The budget signed last year included an additional set-aside of funding for legal aid. A new provision mandated that 25% of all California state cy pres awards (funds remaining after class action settlements have compensated class members) would go to the Equal Access Fund. This provision was rolled back in the budget signed today. Last year, the budget committees wanted to give more funding for your work beyond general fund support, so they turned to cy pres as an option. Many other states have a set-aside for legal aid, proposals that were uncontroversial in those states. However, California’s robust and active nonprofit community relies on cy pres awards to advance their work, and many of our nonprofit partners opposed the set-aside for legal aid. Cy pres funds have historically benefited a diverse array of nonprofit organizations, and the roll-back simply reverts to the status quo. The Legal Aid Association of California is committed to supporting the entire nonprofit community, and we are happy that the legislature supported separate ongoing funding for your work.
Copeland is hopeful that this stable funding will help low-income Californians when they need it the most. “Attorneys do make a difference, and we want a system that is fair for everyone. Until we have a system where an attorney isn’t necessary, LAAC wants to make sure that everyone has access to an advocate to help.”