A poor showing for U.S. legal aid

September 22, 2000|By Robert J. Rhudy

For nearly two decades Congress has deadlocked over our national program to provide legal assistance to low-income persons in civil matters. The Republican platform adopted last month in Philadelphia dropped its demand for elimination of the U.S. Legal Services Corp. The change may offer an opportunity to move forward once again to provide access to justice for all Americans.

American government is founded on the premise that all persons are equal before the law. The second purpose stated in the U.S. Constitution is to "establish justice." The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees "equal protection of the laws."

But reality falls far short of our ideals. Our system of justice relies heavily upon lawyers to understand legal rights and responsibilities and go to court when conflicts cannot be resolved. In many instances, persons without a lawyer are denied access to justice or suffer in conflicts against parties with lawyers. The Constitution requires states to provide a lawyer to indigent persons charged with a crime. This is not the case in most civil claims between individuals, businesses and government.

In 1965, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity initiated a legal services program as a part of the "War on Poverty." OEO-funded attorneys around the country sought to enforce laws on behalf of the poor, including winning 73 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1967 and 1972 for farm workers, tenants, welfare recipients and other groups. The OEO program quickly came under attack by some business and agricultural interests and government representatives.

The Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974 was the result of bipartisan efforts to resolve the OEO conflict while insulating legal services from political pressures. The LSC Act stressed "equal access to the system of justice in our nation for individuals who seek redress of grievances."

By 1981, LSC briefly achieved a plan for minimum access to fund one attorney for each 5,000 income-eligible persons throughout the United States. Upon taking office that same year, President Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate LSC. The Reagan administration could not override congressional support for legal aid, but did force deep budget cuts and restrictions.

Hostilities abated somewhat under President George Bush beginning in 1988, although LSC's funding remained stagnant. Funding increased briefly following Bill Clinton's election, but plummeted in 1995 when House Republicans under Newt Gingrich again sought to end the program. The 1996 Republican platform called for the "elimination, defunding or privatization" of LSC.

Conservative Republicans had won the legal services fight by prohibiting lobbying, class actions, challenges to welfare reform or representation of prisoners and eliminating funding for specialized poverty law centers.

Legal aid offices today also cannot begin to provide minimal access to justice for poor Americans with current resources. LSC today has a client base of nearly 45 million people.

With a 1981 budget of $321.5 million, LSC-funded offices employed 6,218 attorneys and 9,075 support staff. In 1999, LSC received $305 million for 3,590 attorneys and 4,637 other staff. Our current legal aid system serves 20 percent of the need of our poorest citizens (mostly women with children).

Compared with other countries, our legal aid program is a national disgrace. An LSC report to Congress in April said, "Government in the U.S., with federal and state resources combined, spends about $1.70 per capita on civil legal aid. By comparison in 1994-1995, England and Wales spent $30 per capita." Public funding in most of Canada and Western Europe runs five to 10 times the U.S. level per capita.

One positive response to the federal legal aid battle since 1981 has been a growing state role. Every state has designated an agency to help fund and develop legal services. While these activities have not offset federal cuts, states have accepted responsibility for legal aid. They need federal support.

In July, Mr. Clinton again brought Arab and Jewish leaders to the table to seek peace in the Middle East. Can U.S. leaders come together to provide access to justice in our country?

The Republican-led restrictions over the years have gone too far for many legal aid supporters. But should those restrictions be accepted anyway so that Congress will pay for the current program? Or should Congress recognize the rights of states to use federal and state dollars to provide the kinds of legal aid they believe appropriate?

Regardless of the outcome of this fall's elections, the GOP's Philadelphia platform provides an opportunity to begin the dialogue for an honorable peace. Who will bring our leaders to the table in the cause of justice for our nation's poor?

Robert J. Rhudy is executive director of the Maryland Legal Services Corp.

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