By Leslie E. John, partner at Ballard Spahr LLP, and President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.
As we find ourselves in an hour of reckoning, amidst a global outcry against systemic racism and injustice coupled with the forces of a global pandemic, it is hard to imagine there will ever be another occasion in our lifetimes when the message of equal access to justice is so necessary, and the need for support for civil legal aid in Philadelphia will be as great as it is now.
We must take this opportunity to come up with solutions that are worthy of how big this moment is – for our future as a democracy and for our hope of ever making good on the American creed for all within her shores – particularly for the sons and daughters of those who were enslaved. In April, the Foundation released emergency grants for immediate distribution to Philadelphia’s civil legal aid agencies. Our Board acted decisively to alleviate some of the unexpected pressure on our public interest community. However, it was not nearly enough.
Structural inequalities and racism are prevalent throughout the American justice system. They are especially apparent in civil legal matters, from housing to unemployment to immigration, which disproportionately affects people of color. And because there is no universal right to an attorney for civil legal needs, more than 80% of Philadelphians before our civil courts are without legal representation in proceedings that threaten their basic human rights. The free and low-cost legal services provided by Philadelphia civil legal aid organizations are critical to the fight for racial justice and equity.
Civil legal aid organizations, including our 36 nonprofit partners, have been an essential instrument of the front-line response during the COVID-19 crisis, and they will be just as critical during our recovery, helping tens of thousands of Philadelphia residents through vital programs and services. An immense surge in the need for legal aid services is anticipated once offices and courts reopen – Philadelphia County’s unemployment rate saw a dramatic jump from 6% in January to 16.5% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, nearly 1 in 4 families in Philadelphia were living below the official poverty line, and it is predicted that a record number will be entering poverty for the first time due to circumstances caused by the pandemic. Many individuals will be turning to free and low-cost legal aid for assistance – a system that was already overworked and overloaded prior to the pandemic.
As a funder who provides unrestricted annual grants to nearly 40 agencies, the Philadelphia Bar Foundations knows that the budgets of most legal aid organizations do not offer buffers for surge capacity. They would if they could, but legal aid is notoriously underfunded, and nonprofits are currently experiencing reductions in revenue from all philanthropic sources, including an anticipated 46% to 70% drop in federal IOLTA funding, which will lead to reductions in service delivery, program, and staff in our legal aid organizations.
Financial gifts to the Philadelphia Bar Foundation help us keep working to provide grants and other support to the legal aid agencies that need it most. Please consider donating to the Philadelphia Bar Foundation to support our mission and the vision for equal access to justice. You can donate online at www.philadelphiabarfoundation.org/donate.
Thank you, and stay safe.