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Legal-Service Aid for Vulnerable North Dakotans on Chopping Block

Legal Services of North Dakota, which provides legal help for poor residents of the state, could lose half its funding under President Trump's proposed budget. (BernardaSv/iStock)
Legal Services of North Dakota, which provides legal help for poor residents of the state, could lose half its funding under President Trump's proposed budget. (BernardaSv/iStock)
April 18, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. – When members of Congress return to Washington D.C. next week, the top issue on their agenda will most likely be the budget. Tucked into the Trump administration's proposed $54 billion cut to domestic programs, is the complete defunding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a funding organization that helps provide free legal services on civil matters to poor Americans.

One of the beneficiaries of this organization is Legal Services of North Dakota. Executive director Richard LeMay, says his organization helps North Dakotans in a vast array of financially trying situations.

"Domestic violence is a big area that we work in, where victims of domestic violence don't have money to hire private attorneys to help them get protection orders or to get other types of relief that they need to survive," he explained.

The LSC currently has a budget of $385 million. Legal Services of North Dakota receives half its funding from the LSC, amounting to around $750,000 dollars. It's the only legal service of its kind in the state, providing free help for low-income residents.

President Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, has said the administration is targeting inefficient programs in the federal budget for elimination.

LeMay says civil legal aid, which includes cases such as the denial of benefits, housing disputes, and other consumer issues, doesn't receive as much attention as some other areas of law. However, he says it can be costly for the state to deal with issues such as homelessness and that providing legal protection for seniors on fixed incomes who may not have the resources to hire a private attorney, for example, benefits society at large.

"Actually, having legal services in place saves the state taxpayer a lot of money," he said.

LeMay says his service already has had to cut back because of budget decreases over the last four years. Two years ago, staff gave up benefits and pay so they wouldn't lose anyone from their team. Cutting LSC funding completely would most likely devastate the organization.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND