Justice For All

Our View: Lifting Restrictions On Legal Aid Will Give The Poor A Stronger Voice In Court

July 02, 2009

For the first time in more than a decade, Congress has a real chance to lift the crippling restrictions on the federally financed Legal Services Corporation (LSC) that have hampered the agency's efforts to assist poor people seeking redress through the courts. At a time when many people are struggling against the threat of foreclosure, eviction or loss of health and unemployment benefits as a result of the economic downturn, the LSC's services are needed more than ever. Congress should seize this opportunity to make them available as widely as possible.

The LSC was created by Congress in 1974 to help fund state and local legal aid organizations that represent indigent clients in civil cases. But after the Republican takeover of Congress that began in 1994, lawmakers imposed increasingly punishing restrictions on how LSC funds could be used to press poor people's claims in court.

One restriction prohibited plaintiff's lawyers who prevail in civil rights and consumer protection cases from recovering attorney's fees from the opposing side. Legal aid groups often use such fees to help support their operating expenses. Another restriction barred legal aid lawyers from representing clients in class-action suits that seek relief for problems affecting large numbers of people.

A third provision, the so-called "poison pill" restriction, proved even more insidious in its effect on the ability of indigent clients to have their day in court. It extended a laundry list of congressionally mandated restrictions on the use of federal funds - including bans on abortion litigation and cases involving prison inmates or undocumented immigrants - to all other funds a legal aid group might raise from state or local governments or private sources. That sweeping prohibition effectively tied up hundreds of millions of dollars that legal aid groups otherwise could have used to litigate cases ranging from voting rights and medical insurance benefits to public housing complaints and labor union disputes.

But last week a Senate appropriations subcommittee led by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski stripped the poison pill restrictions from the bill for all but abortion and prisoner representation cases when it approved the LSC's $400 million budget for next year; the panel's appropriation represented a $10 million increase over the LSC's 2009 budget. And earlier, House lawmakers had approved an even larger increase, to $440 million, and lifted the ban on attorney fees. The House version, however, leaves the "poison pill" intact.

While the Senate bill provides less than the $435 million requested by the Obama administration, which also supports lifting most restrictions on the LSC, its rejection of the "poison pill" provision removes one of the major obstacles to more effective legal representation for the poor.

Sen. Mikulski obviously had to make a tough call in deciding whether to give up some of the agency's funding in order to win enough Republican support to lift the bill's most onerous restriction, but we think she made the right choice. The financial flexibility legal aid groups would gain almost surely would be worth more than Sen. Mikulski gave up in direct funding. The legislation her subcommittee marked up last week still faces more hurdles before it can become law. But for the first time since 1996, it looks as if the LSC finally may be able to get back to providing the kind of essential legal services its founders envisioned and that poor people desperately need in order to secure their rights under the law.

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