Area legal services for low-income families are bracing for a renewed round of budget cuts currently being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The cuts, which have already slashed budgets across the state, have forced area services to lay off employees and scale back legal services which are vital for low-income and poverty-stricken families, officials said.
"It is very sad to think that people who once relied on us for assistance may now have to go on their own to the courtroom," Laurel Legal Services Inc. Executive Director Cynthia A. Sheehan said.
Laurel Legal Services Inc. receives federal and state funding for legal programs in Cambria County.
Tasked with providing legal assistance for low-income and below poverty-level families, the organization also handles domestic violence, child custody, mortgage foreclosures and other civil cases, Sheehan said.
But federal budget cuts to Legal Services Corporation - as much as $20 million cut nationally from the previous fiscal year - have forced Laurel Legal Services and other area programs to scale back on staff after receiving decreased federal funding.
In the 2011 fiscal year, LSC was budgeted $404 million. That number fell to about $348 million in 2012.
The cuts have area agencies worried about maintain service levels while trying to cut costs.
"Demand will be the same, but whether we will be able to meet it ... we have to cut back on what level of service we can provide," Sheehan said.
Laurel Legal Services received $841,600 in federally funded LSC grants during the 2011 fiscal year, which comprised about 34 percent of the organization's $2.4 million budget.
That number was cut to $718,223 for the 2012 fiscal year - a 17 percent reduction.
A Cambria County attorney took a voluntary leave from the company to help offset costs, Sheehan said. A satellite office in Jefferson County will be closed and lawyers will begin to transition into more phone-based legal consultation whenever possible, she said.
The effect will lead to a "significant" reduction in clients, from about 6,000 annually to about 4,000, which does not include all those who qualify under federal guidelines, she said.
MidPenn Legal Services, which serves residents in Blair and surrounding counties, received a 17 percent reduction in LSC funding - down from last year's $2.4 million in funding, according to the LSC website.
"Statewide, the state budget line for legal services is 20 percent less this fiscal year than it was last year," PA Legal Aid Network Executive Director Sam Milkes said. "That's a big deal to us."
While legal offices across the state are facing reductions, programs have not been forced to close up shop entirely, Milkes said.
But increasing financial pressure and smaller staffs tasked with ever-increasing workloads have officials worried basic human services are at risk.
Since organizations such as Laurel Legal Services and MidPenn Legal Services represent poverty-level individuals and those facing serious social issues, the risk of individuals falling through the cracks in increased as budgets are slashed, Milkes said.
"When legal services get cut, those are the kinds of basic human need that are at stake," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.