Why legal aid lawyers matter to Connecticut

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In an ideal world, perhaps we wouldn’t matter. People would not need to access the judicial system to resolve disputes or protect their rights. They would not experience discrimination. Tenants would be able to have reasonable discussions with their landlords and arrive at an outcome acceptable to all parties. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

Connecticut Legal Rights Project has existed since 1990 as the result of a settlement in a lawsuit brought against the state of Connecticut by patients at state-operated psychiatric hospitals, represented by attorneys at the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (now ACLU-CT), for violation of their rights regarding effective access to the courts. As two large state hospitals (Fairfield Hills and Norwich State) closed and our clients moved into the community, CLRP moved with them.

In addition to representing patients in state-operated facilities on legal matters regarding their admission, treatment, conditions, discharge, and other hospital-related rights, CLRP also represents clients in all of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns to enforce their legal rights and assure that personal choices are respected and individual self-determination is protected.

Our clients face the challenges that all low-income residents of Connecticut face, including income and housing insecurity. In addition, as a result of their mental health conditions, they also experience the effects of discrimination and stigma in education, employment, and housing. CLRP relies primarily on funding from the state of Connecticut and the Connecticut Bar Foundation to support its work, in addition to fee-for-service work and private donations.

CLRP faces the challenges faced by all legal services providers in the state: in a time of continuing fiscal crisis, should the work we do be considered a “core service of government” and funded accordingly? At a recent town hall budget forum, the Gov. Dannel Malloy stated that he “thinks legal services is a part of that [core services] – but whether it is the same part tomorrow as it is today, I don’t know.”

One of the things I know for sure, as a person who lives with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, is that not having to worry about whether I had a roof over my head has meant that I have had the emotional energy to invest in recovering and staying well. The clients represented by CLRP and other legal aid agencies don’t have that luxury. The inability to meet one’s own most basic needs presents additional obstacles in the path of recovery.

The representation provided by Connecticut’s legal services agencies not only directly benefits our clients, but also has a wider impact on the entire community. When people are able to access the supports and services they want and need, they are able to get well, stay well, and contribute to society. Respecting and protecting people’s right to live in the community of their choice promotes full community integration which maximizes opportunities for independence and self-sufficiency.

All legal services providers have to adjust to gaps in funding. We have many dedicated staff members who have worked in the public sector their entire careers, forgoing larger salaries available elsewhere in the legal profession. Many of those staff members voluntarily take cuts in salary and benefits so that we can maintain jobs in order to provide services to our clients. We worry every day about what will happen to them if we are no longer here.

These are the voices of a few CLRP clients who testified at Appropriations Committee hearings earlier this legislative session:

–“I sincerely believe that without the impact from CLRP’s services I would be homeless now.”

–“Without CLRP, people like me will be in trouble; we cannot afford to pay lawyers out of pocket. Please do not turn your backs on those of us who need help the most.”

–“I don’t have to worry anymore about whether my housing is secure. If it wasn’t for CLRP, I’m not sure I would have a roof over my head at all.”

A state’s budget is a reflection of its values. Those values can be measured by how they address the needs of the most vulnerable among us. Basic needs will not go away if the services that meet those needs are no longer available.

Kathy Flaherty is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project.

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