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Wieckowski, advocates urge state to increase legal aid funding
State's legal aid funding lags behind the national average
Sacramento – State Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and legal aid organizations from across California advocated for increased funding of legal services to low-income Californians today during a state budget subcommittee hearing. With California already far below other states in funding and federal cuts looming, Wieckowski and advocates called for $30 million to raise California to the national average.
“We have the greatest demand in the country to provide legal services to our neediest residents, yet we perpetually under fund this form of assistance,” said Wieckowski, a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. “In civil cases, there is no ‘right’ to an attorney, and if we do not increase funding, that means our seniors, the disabled community and other vulnerable Californians will not have the access to our legal system that many of us take for granted.”
The state’s Equal Access Fund provides the money to 94 California legal service organizations to provide legal aid to low-income people who cannot afford an attorney. Apart from last year’s $5 million one-time increase, for which Wieckowski strongly advocated, the Equal Access Fund has not increased since 1999.
Legal aid providers help low-income Californians in many ways, including preventing violence by obtaining, renewing and enforcing restraining orders; preserving access to health care; fighting unnecessary foreclosure or repossession; securing unpaid wages; stopping elder abuse; and helping immigrant and blended families. They also step in to resolve their clients’ problems to avoid lawsuits altogether.
“If you do not have access to our courts, than justice under the law is simply absent,” Wieckowski said. “Our disadvantaged communities are most at risk without that access.”
Federal funding is provided largely through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), but those funds are threatened by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, who want to defund the LSC.
“Unfortunately, current funding is not sufficient to provide legal services to even one-third of California’s poor and lower-income residents,” said Salena Copeland, executive director of the Legal Aid Association of California, in a letter to the subcommittee. “Millions of Californians are unrepresented in civil court proceedings. As a result, many Californians are unable to obtain meaningful access to the courts.”
Senator Wieckowski represents the 10th District, which includes southern Alameda County and northeast Santa Clara County.