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Proposed Budget Cuts Will Impact Access to Justice

 

Thursday, June 15, 2017
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I read with great interest your article from March titled "Downsizing the DOL" (March 17, 2017, HREOnline.com) on the impact of the administration's proposed cutbacks and the related impact on American employers. While this is unfolding, the White House's proposed 2018 budget could also result in drastic changes that your readers should be aware of.  A program that benefits millions of Americans -- the Legal Services Corp., which is the primary source of funding for civil court legal aid for low-income Americans -- could be eliminated under the new budget. 

As chief human resources officer of a legal insurance company, I am well aware not only of how often people experience legal issues in their lives, but also that most Americans need assistance to make legal services more affordable.  How do we expect low- and moderate-means Americans to afford attorney fees that, according to the Survey of Law Firm Economics, average $343 an hour when the majority of Americans have a hard time paying a one-time emergency expense of $400?

Funding for LSC is critical if we want to provide low-income Americans access to quality legal services. Legal insurance is a benefit we can all be providing our modest-to-moderate means employees so that they also have access to attorneys and legal services.

The importance of this can be illustrated by looking at an issue millions of Americans deal with every year: domestic violence. One out of four women (and one in seven men) will be a victim of severe physical violence in her lifetime. Currently the main source of legal assistance for women attempting to escape domestic violence situations is programs funded by the LSC.

But domestic violence is not an issue that affects only Americans living below the poverty line. One of ARAG's plan members, Kim, was in an abusive marriage with two toddlers. She knew she needed to get out of her marriage for the safety of herself and her kids, but she was scared. She didn't know if she could afford living on her own, let alone paying for an attorney to help her get a divorce. And she was scared at the thought of figuring it all out by herself.

Kim had legal insurance through her employer, which gave her a place to turn for security and help escaping her situation -- and planning a safer future for herself and her children. She calls this benefit her "lifeline to independence." 

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This is the kind of story that makes me passionate about the work ARAG does -- and about the power we have as HR executives to provide our employees the tools they need to live their best lives.

Cost should never be a barrier to living a safe, healthy and happy life. Legal insurance saves plan members an average of $3,550 in attorney fees per legal issue. Plus, insurance is something that people can budget for, which can make even the most unexpected legal situation less stressful because you aren't worrying about paying for an attorney on top of everything else. And we all know that less stressed employees are more engaged and productive employees.

We may not know what will become of federal funding for LSC and legal aid programs, but we don't have to sit around and wait to do something to make legal services more accessible to other segments of the population.

Erin Barfels

Chief Human Resources Officer

ARAG

Des Moines, Iowa

 

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