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Free Legal Services in NC Take Big Budget Hit

February 28, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - North Carolina residents may find they have less access to free legal help this year, because of severe cuts to the budgets of free civil legal aid programs around the state. Legal aid services help qualifying people who face foreclosure, domestic violence, a lack of access to medical care, and consumer scams.

Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont saw a 25 percent state funding cut, as well as a serious reduction in contributions from lawyers who are also struggling in this economy.

Ken Schorr, the organization's executive director, says it's a tough time.

"And it's been very challenging. In a time when the demand for our service is extraordinarily high. All of our work is up; some of it is up dramatically."

Schorr says his organizations and others only take cases to court that have the best chances of success, and win their cases about 90 percent of the time.

"The cases in which we go with people to hearings are cases where we think they will almost certainly lose without us, but they have a very good chance of winning with us."

According to the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, North Carolina's legal aid programs resolve more than 70 percent of their cases outside of court.

In the last 10 years, there's been a 60 percent increase in the number of people eligible for free legal aid. To qualify, recipients must have incomes below the federal poverty line.

Another free legal nonprofit, Legal Aid of North Carolina, had to close four offices and lay off 30 lawyers after last year's budget cuts.

Reporting for this story by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest. Media in the Public Interest is funded in part by Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Stephanie Carson/Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC