North Carolina's House speaker wouldn't say at first why the Republican-led General Assembly cut much of the state funding legal aid groups use to help low-income clients facing evictions and other legal trouble in civil court. The $1.6 million cut in the final state budget in June was approved with little or no debate, with no explanations provided to the defenders of the poor.
Now, weeks later, Speaker Tim Moore has provided some hints as to why he pushed to take the money away: He suggested that some legal aid attorneys were overzealous in their defense of renters in landlord-tenant disputes.
"There were examples being brought to a number of us, where for example you had a 'mom and pop' who were landlords in a lease and where they were coming in and getting served with discovery and all these things and a lot of frivolous motions," the Cleveland County Republican told reporters when he returned to Raleigh last week.
This money was cut as another state body, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, whose members are appointed by the legislature, prepares to decide a motion from conservatives that would bar the UNC Center for Civil Rights from representing low-income clients in school segregation and environmental justice cases.
"By these combined actions, meaningful access to the courts for low-income people will be significantly reduced," George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, said by email on Friday.
Hausen also denied that the nonprofit groups are too aggressive.
"We do what is necessary in a case to ensure that the law is followed by the court and that we can avert homelessness," Hausen wrote. "We have neither the time nor the resources to file frivolous motions."
Legal aid groups say the lost state funding could mean eliminating nearly 35 attorneys and staff to help thousands of clients each year — people like Emma Moore of Henderson, who needs a power wheelchair to get around and is fighting eviction from her apartment.
"I would be out in the cold with no place to live" if not for the free legal help, Moore, 66, told The Associated Press.
The budget repealed the Access to Civil Justice Act, which earmarked a portion of court fees to help low-income people get free legal representation. The kinds of cases that qualified for these funds included helping the disabled get Social Security benefits; farmers facing foreclosure; people at least 60 years old or under 21 with things like wills, child care and accessing government services; and those facing housing loss because of predatory mortgage lending, foreclosures and evictions.
The repeal means total state funds for Hausen's group, the Charlotte-based Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville will fall from $2.7 million to $1.1 million. Just eight years ago, the groups had received $6.3 million combined. Because state dollars have restrictions on what they can be used for, what's left must go to help domestic violence victims and veterans.
The $1.6 million reduction is a fraction of the nearly $30 million in federal and state funds and private donations that support the three organizations each year.
Moore spokesman Joseph Kyzer declined to disclose details to support the speaker's complaints. "It wouldn't be appropriate for our office to comment about actual cases," he wrote in an e-mail to the AP. He also suggested that the groups can't be in much trouble, since Legal Aid of North Carolina recently advertised openings for attorneys.
Moore said this budget does good things for the criminal justice system, highlighting $2.1 million to hire more than 30 assistant prosecutors across the state. As for civil litigation, he said private practices should do more of it for free, as part of every lawyer's professional obligation to perform some "pro bono" work.
Private lawyers performing pro bono services do good work, but this can't replace the high demand for legal aid lawyers, Southern Piedmont executive director Ken Schorr said. "There is still enormous need for legal representation that cannot be met by volunteers alone," he said.