The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry

Original Reporting | By Heather Rogers |

In view of the fact that the number of people eligible for LSC-funded services had, by 2010, grown to more than 60 million from just under 43 million, the inflation-adjusted and eligible-population equivalent to 1981 services would require a budget of at least $1.1 billion (in fact, the LSC estimates, an additional 5 million people have been eligible for services since 2010, which would mean that a 1981-equivalent budget would need to be in excess of $1.2 billion). Thus, that ostensible 8 percent increase over 31 years represents in real terms a cut of between 69 and 71 percent. (See a brief history of cuts to and restrictions on the LSC in the box below.)

According to a 2009 report by the LSC, the offices it funded to provide civil legal assistance were turning away half of all people who were coming to them for help. The study estimates this to be about one million people per year who are not given assistance because of insufficient resources.


What it means not to have representation

Phil Bond, managing attorney at a Georgia Legal Services branch office in Macon, said his office took on 76 new clients last January, but that there was three to four times that number of people the office couldn’t help. “We don’t have the capacity…It’s really frustrating.”

While the numbers vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, having to represent oneself is not an isolated occurrence anywhere in the country. In Oregon, 65 percent of people involved in family law cases — which include child custody, divorces, and paternity among other issues — represent themselves. In Maryland, 70 percent of cases involve at least one self-represented party at some point in the case. In New Hampshire, one party is self-represented in 85 percent of all civil cases in the District Court, and 48 percent of all civil cases in the Superior Court. And in domestic violence cases seen in Superior Court in Washington, D.C., almost all parties — fully 98 percent — proceed without representation.

“What does a brief look like when it’s written by someone who doesn’t know legal language? What does an oral argument look like when the defendant doesn’t know where to stand?” asked James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, rhetorically. People without representation have legal rights as a formal matter, “but if you don’t know what they are and don’t know how to take advantage of them, then they mean nothing.”

Kevin Burke has been a judge in Minneapolis for almost thirty years presiding over civil cases. He knows what it’s like to preside over a trial when someone lacks a lawyer. “Say I am an abused woman coming from a culture that is male dominated” — as is the case with refugee Somali and Hmong communities in Minneapolis-St. Paul. That person “need[s] a lawyer to sit with them and say, ‘We need to do something and I’ll stand up for you.’ Of course, we should provide lawyers for people in this situation.”

Judge Burke told Remapping Debate that representation in civil cases is as important as the right to counsel in criminal cases. “If it means taking away your house, all your possessions, and maybe your kid, why is that less important than defense against the chance of going to prison?”

Down, down, down

The cycle of reductions began with the 1982 federal budget. President Reagan persuaded Congress to shear 25 percent of the LSC’s funding. Prior to that, “We felt we could be effective advocates,” said Marcia Cypen, a lawyer and executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, “We felt like we were growing and getting new money and new grants. Then 1981 came and it surprised us, it caught us off guard. We had to lay people off for the first time.”

The next major cuts to the LSC came in the mid-1990s with the GOP takeover of Congress and its “Contract for America” spearheaded by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Under the 1996 appropriations bill signed by President Clinton, the LSC funding was cut by 30 percent. In addition, Congress imposed new restrictions on the services LSC offices could provide: they could no longer represent prisoners, handle many types of cases involving immigrants, or pursue class-action lawsuits or cases that would bring in lawyers’ fees. They were no longer allowed to lobby on the broader issues faced by their clients. And they were barred from challenging the brand-new 1996 national welfare reform laws.

“This wasn’t about finances,” said Cypen. “The 1996 restrictions were ideological…I can say this because the rules didn’t save the government any money. By taking away attorneys’ fees, in fact, it cost them money because [civil] legal aid organizations would be more reliant on federal dollars.”

According to Gordon Deane, president of the National Organization of Legal Service Workers, President Clinton failed to come to the LSC’s defense. He signed the law with all its cuts and restrictions despite his professed support for the LSC. “It was never Clinton’s priority,” Deane said.

In Fiscal Year 2008, the LSC was funded at $350 million. Funding was increased during the initial years of President Obama’s term, topping out at $420 million in Fiscal Year 2010. Since then, there have been renewed funding cuts, with current year funding coming in at $348 million, slightly lower than Fiscal Year 2008 in nominal terms, but, as documented in the main article, dramatically lower in real terms than it was directly before Ronald Reagan took office.

Send a letter to the editor