(Correction: On March 14 The Carolinian misreported Jennifer Lechner as a reporter for NC Policy Watch. She serves as Executive Director of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. The article has been updated to reflect this.)
Updated on March 20, 2018.
RALEIGH N.C. – The North Carolina State Government approved a $23.03 billion budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year. This compromised budget received final approval on Wednesday, Feb. 21 in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans. This two-year budget covers the 2018-2019 fiscal year, but the General Assembly of North Carolina can alter its provisions when it meets next year.
One of the cuts the North Carolina Senate made to the budget was eliminating citizen’s access to civil assistance by eliminating the Access to Civil Justice Act.
North Carolina Access to Civil Justice Act was established to help provide access to civil justice to its most vulnerable citizens including seniors, homeless veterans, domestic violence victims and the poor and disabled. This act helps provide legal representation for indigent persons in certain kinds of civil matters. This provided access to funding for three of North Carolina’s primary civil legal aid providers: Legal Aid of North Carolina, the 4 Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Pisgah Legal Services. The funds pay for legal fees from the court to settle civil cases for N.C. citizens. This funding has been in place since 1989 and is needed now more than ever.
As reported by Jennifer Lechner, Executive Director of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, currently 23 percent of North Carolinians, roughly 2.2 million people, qualify for legal services from these three legal aid organizations. The need for civil legal aid has increased by 30 percent in the past decade in North Carolina while state funding has consistently decreased over time. The N.C. General Assembly has eliminated the accompany fee of $1.50 that funds the act, which has resulted in the withdrawal of $1.7 million budget in funding.
The cost of losing the Access to Civil Justice funds, which accounts for over half of the state funding, will result in a significant drop of service and legal representation for many citizens. This will not only impact the citizens but the judicial system as well. The loss of the act will impair North Carolina’s judicial systems accessibility, effectiveness and efficiency. This will also directly impact children, the disabled, veterans, the elderly and their families who require this kind of civil service and represent the large majority of clients.
The North Carolina Bar association wrote on its Facebook page that eliminating access to Civil Justice Funds would “cause drastic reduction in legal aid agencies’ services to those most in need, undermining equal access to justice for North Carolina citizens.” The post states that “the budget process in the General Assembly is moving very fast. We ask that you contact your representatives and senators in the North Carolina Legislature today, as well as other legislators whom you know personally, and ask them to maintain full funding for legal aid services.”
As reported by the Taft Wireback of Greensboro, former Guilford County Judge Joe John, now a Democratic legislator from northern Raleigh, stated “as a practical matter, having a Legal Aid attorney present is a benefit because at least you have someone there for both sides with some legal expertise. It just creates a more level playing field.”