Not only did North Carolina’s nonprofit legal aid groups see the General Assembly cut much of their state funding used to help poor clients with civil legal troubles, they were at a loss as to why it happened. Now a top legislator has disclosed some reasons.
House Speaker Tim Moore, who acknowledges pushing for the reduction in the final state government budget approved in June, blamed, in part, reports he received of overzealous legal aid attorneys in housing cases for the provision. Legal aid groups are defending their work.
The budget repealed a law earmarking a portion of court fees and distributing the money to three groups to help low-income people get free legal representation for things like fighting eviction notices or denials of government benefits.
There was little to no debate on the repeal of the Access to Civil Justice Act, which means state funds for the groups will fall from $2.7 million to $1.1 million. Most of what’s left over must go to help domestic violence victims and veterans. Just eight years ago, the groups had received $6.3 million combined.
“We were perplexed by the cut because we never did receive an explanation,” said George Hansen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, the largest of the three groups.
Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, initially declined to comment on the provision last month. But during a recent return to Raleigh, Moore said there were concerns about “some of the priorities” of the groups.
“There were examples being brought to a number of us where for example you had a ‘mom and pop’ who were landlords in a lease and where they were coming in and getting served with discovery and all these things and a lot of frivolous motions,” Moore told reporters last week. Moore also said regular private lawyers should be performing more of this civil litigation for free — attorneys are encouraged to perform “pro bono” work.
Hansen and the leaders of Charlotte-based Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville said they work robustly for their clients and keeping families from getting evicted prevents poverty and other societal troubles.
“When we take on these cases, we assiduously adhere to the law and to the ethical rules of our profession. We do what is necessary in a case to ensure that the law is followed by the court and that we can avert homelessness,” Hansen wrote in an email. “We have neither the time nor the resources to file frivolous motions.”
Moore spokesman Joseph Kyzer declined to disclose details on examples Moore identified or who shared them, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate.
The $1.7 million reduction is a very small percentage of the nearly $30 million in federal and state funds and private donations received annually by the three organizations. Moore’s office, pointed to recent attorney job openings by Legal Aid of North Carolina, as more evidence the cut was small. Meanwhile, Moore highlighted $2.1 million in the budget to hire more than 30 additional assistant prosecutors across the state.
But the groups say the lost state funding — unless made up for elsewhere — ultimately will result in nearly 35 attorneys and staff being laid off and several thousand potential clients unable to get help each year.
Private lawyers performing pro bono work do good work, but it supplements and can’t replace the high demand work of the legal aid groups, according to Southern Piedmont executive director Ken Schorr. “There is still enormous need for legal representation that cannot be met by volunteers alone,” Schorr said.