The Campaign for Equal Justice’s 2014 Task Force on Legal Aid Funding brought together the Chief Justice, members of Oregon’s Legislature, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, Oregon’s legal aid programs, partner organizations including the Oregon State Bar and the Oregon Law Foundation, Oregon foundations, and the corporate community to address the civil legal justice gap in Oregon — the unmet civil legal needs of the poor and elderly.
The 2014 Task Force on Legal Aid Funding addressed Oregon’s legal aid funding crisis, and worked to set both short and long-term goals in order to achieve minimally adequate funding for legal aid. We looked at increasing existing funding for legal aid, and also looked for new funding sources. At a time when resources for legal aid have declined, the increase in poverty has been staggering, leaving about 85% of the civil legal needs of the poor unmet. The Task Force was formed on the heels of Legal Aid’s 2013 Strategic Plan that was adopted in December 2013.
After staffing reductions over the last three years, about 90 legal aid lawyers serve the civil legal needs of 850,000 poor and vulnerable Oregonians. To provide minimum access to justice, Oregon should have two legal aid lawyers for every ten thousand individuals who are eligible for services; Oregon currently has one legal aid lawyer for every 9,444. Low-income Oregonians tend to have more civil legal problems than do individuals in higher income groups: they have more contacts with government agencies and programs, and are more often the victims of consumer fraud, employment violations, and housing violations. Low income Oregon women and children experience increased difficulty in leaving domestic violence situations because economic barriers make it difficult to leave; or, when they do leave, they and their children are often thrust into poverty.
Funding for statewide legal aid programs is about $15 million and it is estimated that this funding is adequate to meet about 15% of the civil legal needs of the poor in Oregon. Simply put, this is grossly inadequate and a failing of our justice system.
Funding for legal aid is a state, federal, and private partnership, with many funding sources being unpredictable, especially in recent years with low interest rates and declining federal funding. The collective wisdom of this group has come together to improve the availability of civil legal services to our most vulnerable Oregonians. As stated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Powell: