Public interest lawyers help tens of thousands of people a year. So why does NC’s latest budget target them?

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger speak about the budget at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C. last September. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

By Dylan Rhoney

February 29, 2024

In September, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a budget excluding Legal Aid of North Carolina attorneys from receiving tuition assistance. With less aid available for aspiring public interest lawyers, it could mean fewer people entering the field, and ultimately, less legal support for struggling North Carolinians.

Every night, thousands of North Carolinians go to sleep without a place to call home.

For a decade, Velda Harper of Matthews was one of them. In 2011, Harper chose to have gastric bypass surgery. She experienced severe complications as a result of the surgery, prompting additional surgeries that caused her to miss time from her job working in a dermatologist’s office. She eventually lost her job—and then her home.  

“I’ll never forget. It was the day before Thanksgiving, 2011. The sheriff knocked on my door, and told me I had 10 minutes to get things out of my home. He extended me grace and gave me 15 minutes,” Harper told Cardinal & Pine.

Over the next decade, she bounced around various cities in North Carolina and Georgia, staying with friends, at extended stay hotels, and Samaritan’s House, a nonprofit that gives people experiencing homelessness a safe place to stay.

Harper said she is grateful to have never had to sleep on the street during this time or in her car.

“But for me, coming from a place of working … and coming from a family that was a middle-class family, that was overwhelming to even think that I had to live with somebody.”

In April of 2021, Harper was finally able to find a place to call home through RAMP CLT, a program created during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide Mecklenburg County residents with rental and mortgage assistance.

But by last fall, she lost her job as a caregiver for the cognitively disabled and fell behind on rent while she was searching for another job. Harper was unable to pay rent for August and September of 2023, and knew she wouldn’t be able to pay October’s rent. 

“I had gone to the office manager and I had explained to her what was going on,” Harper said. 

Harper said she asked the apartment manager to contact her prior to filing an eviction notice. Not long after the meeting, Harper came home to find that an eviction notice had been served by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.

She tried to plead her case to the apartment manager, and was even able to secure payment for two months rent from Crisis Assistance Ministry, an organization that provides financial support for those in need. However, when the organization attempted to pay the rent on Harper’s behalf, it was not accepted. Harper was also told she could not directly pay what was owed.

Facing eviction, Harper knew legal assistance could be the difference between staying in her home and being potentially homeless again.

So she called Legal Aid of North Carolina, an organization that provides legal assistance to people who can’t afford an attorney.

I had talked to somebody, but by the time I called them it was too late for them to actually appear,” Harper said.

The night before she was due to appear in court, however, her information was passed along to Toussaint Romain, the Chief Executive Officer of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, who had assisted her as a court appointed attorney back in 2009. 

Speaking with Cardinal & Pine, Romain recalled being asked the night before the hearing to appear on Harper’s behalf at 10 a.m. the following day. He agreed to help Harper, and on his way to the courthouse, he received a call from her landlord.

“‘Hey, Toussaint, you don’t know me, but I know you,’” he recalled the landlord saying.

The landlord informed him they would be dropping the case, wouldn’t evict Harper, and would accept payment from her and on her behalf to allow her to stay in the apartment.

Just the fact that Harper would have a lawyer on her side in court saved her from potentially falling into homelessness again. Romain said this perfectly demonstrates how legal outcomes—and your entire future—can depend on being able to access representation.

“Had I not shown up, had she not had an attorney, she would have been evicted,” Romain said.

Harper also believes she would have been forced back into homelessness without Romain’s help.

“If I had not had representation, I would not be in my home right now,” she said. 

Harper believes programs like Legal Aid and other public interest organizations and attorneys need to get public funding to help society’s most vulnerable.

“There needs to be funding (for Legal Aid). Especially for marginalized people, and the low-income community,” she said.

A future with less help for the Velda Harpers of the world

Harper is just one of thousands of clients that public interest attorneys like Romain help each year. His office alone provides legal assistance to around 5,300 people a year.

The group Harper initially contacted, Legal Aid of North Carolina, has 24 offices across the state and serves clients in 100 counties. The organization helps people with an array of legal issues, ranging from domestic violence protection to eviction cases and housing discrimination. For many of their clients, the organization may be their only option for affordable legal assistance, as private attorneys can be too expensive for many to afford.

While Legal Aid served over 55,000 individuals in 2022, the scope of available help is steadily being chipped away.

In September, the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly steamrolled Democrats and Gov. Roy Cooper to pass a state budget that included a provision excluding Legal Aid of North Carolina attorneys from receiving tuition assistance through NC Leaf, a public interest entity dedicated to providing tuition assistance to attorneys working as public interest attorneys, including assistant district attorneys, nonprofit lawyers, and public defenders. 

The exclusion could have serious ramifications for Legal Aid moving forward.

The group declined to comment for this story, but data shows that attorneys working at Legal Aid can be paid as little as $40,100 per year, while at the same time shouldering upwards of $100,000 in student debt from law school.

State Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover County), an attorney, says the move places an even greater burden on Legal Aid attorneys. 

“It is a grind. It is a very difficult job. It is something that not many people make a career out of because it’s just too taxing. And heaven’s sakes, this targeted carve-out is so short-sighted,” she said.

Finding legal services in many parts of the state is already difficult. Forty-eight of North Carolina’s 100 counties are defined as “legal deserts,” meaning there is less than one lawyer per 1,000 people.

With less assistance available for aspiring public interest lawyers, it could mean fewer people entering the field, and ultimately, less help for people like Harper.

Cuts to Legal Aid of North Carolina

The most recent budget isn’t the first time the legislature has targeted Legal Aid, which receives public funding from the state. In 2007, the legislature provided around $6 million to Legal Aid. By 2020, that figure was roughly $700,000, amounting to a 90% cut in a little over a decade.

In 2017, the General Assembly repealed the Access to Civil Justice Act as part of the budget process. This decision cut around $1.6 million dollars that local legal assistance offices like Legal Aid needed to maintain their current operations. 

The North Carolina Bar Association opposed the decision, and said “…even at current funding levels, the legal needs of more than 80 percent of North Carolinians who qualify for legal aid go unmet.”

Why Legal Aid has been targeted

Rep. Butler believes in part that the legislature’s targeting of Legal Aid is in part due to a perception lawmakers have about the organization’s attorneys.

“They think Legal Aid lawyers are loosey-goosey, liberal folks, and they don’t like that. So they’re going to penalize them. Raleigh has become very punitive. It’s not about good governance anymore,” she said.

Butler also believes cuts to Legal Aid speak to a broader issue for the state. “We’re seeing a grotesque underfunding of all kinds of services across the board,” she said. 

Legal Aid is able to raise private funds for its operations and is not completely beholden to the General Assembly for funding. For example, the organization received around $4.3 million from the Legal Services Corporation in 2022 to support those impacted by hurricanes in recent years.

But State Sen. Julie Mayfield of Buncombe County  said the decision over the years to cut funding to Legal Aid still impacts many North Carolinians in a way they may not appreciate. 

“People who can afford attorneys take it for granted. But the truth is that many people, middle and low-income people, can’t afford attorneys. They risk losing all sorts of things. They risk losing housing, benefits, they risk not being able to hold landlords and employers accountable for things…all of the things where you need the judicial system to help you resolve a problem,” she said.

Romain echoed this sentiment, saying that most of the clients he works with are not seeking legal help for complicated cases.

“These are simple needs… not ‘I’m fighting over someone’s estate of a billion dollars,’ or fighting for some really difficult civil legal issue, a merger or acquisition,” Romain said. “These are ‘I don’t know how to fill out this paperwork to get access to a benefit that I’m entitled to, or that is available to me.”

Romain said that his office has seen an influx of clients seeking legal assistance from communities outside of Charlotte.

“I get calls from Union County City Council members…Lincoln County, Hickory, we’re getting calls from Gastonia,” he said. “Our surrounding counties are reaching out for help from our organization, and we’re helping as many as we can, but it’s a dire, desperate need.”

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