The American justice system penalizes poverty at every turn. Despite the fact that living in poverty in and of itself creates legal problems for low-income Americans, there are simply not enough resources available to meet the legal needs faced by America's most vulnerable communities. Given the fact that Americans spend more each year on Halloween costumes for their pets than the federal government does in providing funding for legal aid offices, it's no surprise that 86 percent of civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help.
Unfortunately, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, has been seriously threatened throughout the last few years. Despite the fact that, accounting for inflation, LSC's 2013 allocation was the lowest it's received in its storied 40 year history, this administration's proposed completely eliminating the Legal Services Corporation its FY2018 budget. Such a cut would leave this country’s most vulnerable without access to the “Equal Justice Under the Law” promised them by our Constitution.
Nowhere is the value of the Legal Services Corporation more felt than in rural America, where, on average, there are more legal needs per capita than in urban areas and where there are far fewer private attorneys able to offer pro bono services. To highlight just how valuable legal aid attorneys are in rural communities, photojournalist Michael Santiago visited with the dedicated attorneys at the Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society (SVLAS), who told him about Albert Blair II and how critical legal aid is for those facing housing problems.
Albert Blair II (Photo Credit: Michael Santiago)
When Albert Blair II’s aunt passed away, he inherited her home and was given lifetime rights to it. Under the stipulation that she would help take care of him, he let his sister and her husband move into the home. Unfortunately, the couple began to financially exploit Albert, opening up credit cards under his name, for example. Eventually his sister moved Albert into his mother’s home and refused to let him back in. In that time, she tried to redo the deed and take ownership of Albert’s home. With the help of the Program of Assertive Community Treatment, a program that promotes independent living for persons with severe and persistent mental illness, Albert was connected with the Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society and was able to evict his sister and reclaim his home. Though the process took an entire year, they were able to step in before a new deed was written. For Albert, this isn’t over. He is still going through court proceedings for compensation for damages done to the home.
This project was funded by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), the oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel. With the Legal Services Corporation under threat, NLADA is working with its members, its supporters and its allies in the corporate community and in Congress to push back against the proposed cuts. Please visit NLADA's website for more information.