Thursday, February 24, 2011

Defending Legal Services

My first job as a lawyer, over 25 years ago, was in a legal aid office.  Our clients were people of limited financial means who sought help navigating the legal system against well-heeled landlords, unyielding government bureaucrats and abusive spouses.  We prevented many of them from being evicted or from living in sub-standard housing, helped them obtain government benefits they had been unfairly denied, and protected them from dangerous domestic situations through restraining orders. 

In those days, the recently-sainted Reagan Administration was aggressively seeking to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation altogether.  While these efforts failed, Reagan did succeed in cutting funds and placing on LSC's board of directors members who were ideologically opposed to federally subsidized legal services for the poor.  Legal services came under assault again during the Clinton Administration, when the Republicans in Congress sought to cut funds and limit the cases LSC-funded legal aid offices could take.  One would think, given that Hillary Clinton had been a former chair of the LSC board, that defending legal aid would be somewhat of a priority.   But, as part of comprehensive welfare reform, Clinton signed off on restrictions to legal aid lawyers, which included prohibiting LSC-funded agencies from taking part in class action lawsuits.

And, so, here we are again.  According to the Brennan Center for Justice, under current funding levels, legal aid offices are able to serve only a fraction of the low-income families who need assistance with "evictions, unpaid wages, child custody, domestic violence, health care, mortgage foreclosure and government benefits."  It has been reported that "fully 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people go unmet annually" due to lack of funding.  Thus, "for every person served by a federally funded civil legal services provider, another was turned away because of insufficient resources. More than one million civil cases are turned away each year."

With the recession pushing more families into poverty, federal funds for these desperately needed services are in danger of being reduced even further.  As the Equal Justice Society reports, "the House has approved a $70 million cut -- from $420 million to $350 million - in funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation, reducing grants to 136 local legal aid nonprofit programs by an average of 18 percent."

There seems to be a disturbing consensus among Republicans and Democrats that social programs that help low income populations must suffer substantial cuts as part of a nationwide belt-tightening, with the debate only being over how much to cut.  Not only is this economically misguided (see, e.g., Must Read Krugman, Let 'Em Eat Catfood, Growth is Good), but it fails to acknowledge, as Bob Herbert recently wrote, the "human cost."

To prevent any more families from falling through the cracks of our legal system, the Equal Justice Society and the Brennan Center for Justice  are asking for all of us to contact our senators and urge them to oppose any cuts for the Legal Services Corporation.


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