Can you tell us about your role at OneJustice?
As Program Manager for the Healthy Nonprofits program, I help lead OneJustice’s policy work, including OneJustice’s advocacy to increase federal funding for legal aid organizations. Serving as OneJustice’s expert on federal funding issues, I lead OneJustice’s role in advocacy efforts in Washington D.C. and Sacramento, and help to ensure that all low-income Californians are being thought of when policies are put into place. As a member of the Healthy Nonprofits team, I also teach and advocate on issues that impact legal services organizations, including team and project management, supervision, and anti-racist practices.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work, and specifically the work of the policy team?
The biggest impact COVID-19 has had on our policy work is by having to transition to virtual lobbying from in person. Last year and this year, our usual trip to Washington D.C. to advocate for Legal Services Corporation funding has switched to a virtual format. This is great for the fact that we can have more staff join our visits without travel restrictions, but lobby visits do lose some personability by taking place online rather than face to face. The switch to virtual however has allowed us to participate in more virtual lobby meetings by partnering with other organizations and being able to do so from our home offices.
Can you describe your experience at the LAAC 2021 virtual Lobby week?
What was the purpose of the lobbying visits, who did you visit?
LAAC’s yearly lobbying day(s) are great because we, as OneJustice, get to go in and share the great work our legal services partners are doing, and how we, as a support center, help provide lasting support for these organizations and their staff. These visits are largely to introduce legislators and their staff to legal aid and to educate them on its importance. This year I was able to meet with Assemblymember Mark Stone, and Assemblymember Kevin Mullin and Senator Connie Leyva’s staff. Each visit was unique and provided us a great opportunity to talk about the unique challenges and opportunities for legal aid in each district.
What was the goal of the virtual lobbying?
This year, our asks revolved around legal aid funding, IOLTA eligibility, and court funding and safety. For legal aid funding, we encouraged lawmakers to support a one-time $20 million budget item to the Equal Access Fund (the line item in the budget that funds legal aid) to backfill losses to IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts) of over 60% from 2019. IOLTA is the main funding source for legal aid in California and as a result of a decrease in IOLTA funding, funding for legal assistance is going down at the exact wrong time, when the demand for legal assistance is going up. Decreasing funding means less recruitment and less retention of hardworking legal aid lawyers right when we need to be ramping up both to meet a growing need.
Through Senate Bill 498, introduced by Senator Umberg, we want to increase the eligibility for IOLTA-funded legal services from 125% to 200% of the federal poverty level. This is a long overdue change that means more people can access legal aid. The increase would cover people who are still low-income by California standards and would allow for more individuals in need to be eligible for legal services.
Our third ask was for continued investment in the judicial system to include stable and reliable funding for courts to address annual cost increases in baseline operations and help plan for the future. Because of COVID-19, we have seen access to the courts for our low-income clients suffer. Additional investments into the courts would include providing resources to improve physical access to the courts, expanding access by increasing the ability of court users to conduct court operations online, restoring programs and services that were reduced over the past few years, and continuing to implement innovations in programs and services, such as for self-represented litigants and other disadvantaged court users.
What do you think is the most pressing advocacy/ policy issue for legal aid right now?
I think funding is always an issue for legal aid. However, due to the decrease in IOLTA funds this year, this need feels even more pressing than usual. The current justice gap in California is large. For example, 85% of low-income Californians receive no or inadequate legal help, which means we need to provide more access to legal aid. One issue with this is that there simply aren’t enough legal aid lawyers to meet the need. Even with recent funding increases, there is still only 1 legal aid lawyer for every 5,500 Californians eligible for their services.. Legal aid lawyers are paid far less than many of their counterparts in the legal profession, struggle with educational debt and the cost of living, and have to navigate high levels of emotional exhaustion. These things compound and make it challenging to recruit and retain legal aid lawyers, which impacts client services. Additional funding, while not the answer to all problems, would go a long way in improving client services holistically.
What is something you think is something that is important our broader audience understands about policy advocacy and legal aid?
The advocacy we do is for the benefit of all who interact with the legal aid system. By improving legal aid attorneys’ quality of life, this improves their ability to serve clients. By providing stable funding for services and programs, this improves community based relationships with organizations that provide services outside of the legal system. By providing more resources and access to the courts, this improves the efficacy and efficiency of our judicial system. All of these things are interconnected and at the end of the day, by making any of these services work better, we are improving the lives of those we care about most: the low-income Californians seeking our services.