The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry

Original Reporting | By Heather Rogers |

GLS has also seen a proliferation of debt-buying companies suing people, especially the elderly, for credit card debt for which there are no records. “Judges rule against the alleged debtors in these cases without themselves knowing the law,” Krisher explained. There are hundreds of courts in Georgia, and many are presided over by judges who aren’t lawyers, such as the magistrate in the case with the landlord. “Some of these judges are excellent but there are others who don’t know the law — and [those judges] are not friendly to poor people,” Krisher said.

Cook County Sheriff: “It’s just not fair.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is responsible for carrying out the evictions of Chicago homeowners who have been foreclosed upon, but is concerned that banks have taken advantage of those who can’t afford legal representation.

His comments in this video are excerpted from “Fighting Foreclosure: Why Legal Assistance Matters,” produced last year by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and by the National Coalition for the Civil Right to Counsel. The video clip is used with permission of the Brennan Center.

Both Scott and Westmoreland justify cutting the LSC’s funding with the claim that the LSC is too politicized. “Instead of representing the needy, they have chosen to focus their attention on another activity — actively lobbying, even though it is against the rules,” Scott said when he spoke in favor of his recent amendment. Westmoreland has also condemned the LSC for lobbying.

Remapping Debate asked each for documentation of this assertion. Westmoreland’s communications director, Leslie Shedd, produced a single flier from a legal services organization in North Carolina that receives grant money from the LSC. The flier appealed to migrant farm workers on H-2A visas to protect themselves against unfair wages. It also said George W. Bush drove wages down and that Barack Obama would raise them. In fact, the flier did violate LSC rules in respect to the comments about the current and former chief executives, an internal LSC investigation found, and the LSC disciplined and withdrew funding from the local organization, said Sandman, the program’s president. It was, he said,  “an example of the LSC following its protocol of swiftly enforcing its rules.”

When Remapping Debate, seeking to determine whether the single flier was an isolated incident or part of a pattern, asked for further documentation of lobbying, Westmoreland’s office failed to reply.

Scott and Westmoreland also call for cuts because, they say, the LSC is duplicative of assistance from state-level agencies, private donors, and pro bono representation through bar associations and private lawyers. Because of this, in Scott’s words, the LSC is “nonessential.”

But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently conducted a review of government programs to check for duplication of services. In its final report, the body named 34 agencies that were redundant, but the LSC was not among them. When asked about this, Scott did not respond. Westmoreland’s spokesperson, Shedd, said, “With all due respect to the GAO, neither the Congressman nor I believe that the federal government only has 34 areas of overlap and duplication.”

Remapping Debate contacted several other Representatives who supported the Scott and Westmoreland amendments; none responded to questions.

“The Legal Services Corporation,” Rep. Austin Scott charged, “has, in effect, become bounty hunters who attack farmers and other employers.”

Responding to Scott and Westmoreland’s assessment that the LSC is unnecessary and duplicative, Phil Bond, managing attorney at a Georgia Legal Services branch office in Macon, said, “Just last Monday we had to turn 29 people away.” The office — which has two paralegals, five staff attorneys, and a lawyer on a fellowship — serves 23 counties with over 100,000 low-income people eligible for legal services. Bond 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 manpower, we don’t have the capacity,” Bond said. “It’s really frustrating.”

As for pro bono services provided by the private bar, Bond complimented those efforts but said that “there is no way” that private attorneys were prepared to take on cases involving food stamps, public housing, and similar cases. “These are never issues [they face] in their practices; they’re not prepared to advise and represent people who have these needs.”


Why hasn’t the LSC fared better?

Over time, there has been sufficient bipartisan support for the LSC to defeat attempts to eliminate the program.  But the intensity of support — and the priority that the program is given — is limited. The current debate in Congress provides a stark illustration. No one is proposing a budget level anywhere near the $1.1 billion or more that would be needed to fully restore the LSC to 1981 service levels. Instead, the debate is now between a Senate bill that would provide $402 million in the next fiscal year, and the House bill that would provide $328 million. There is little optimism among supporters that the $402 million will be accepted.

Both Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) have spoken passionately against further cuts and in support of the mission of the LSC. Yet neither of them, nor any of the other LSC proponents in the House, pushed for a higher funding level. Remapping Debate asked Cohen whether support for the LSC is truly meaningful if the yearly bipartisan votes to keep the LSC alive include neither funding increases nor the lifting of substantive restrictions on the cases that LSC-funded offices can bring.

“It obviously isn’t,” Cohen replied.

The non-governmental groups advocating for the LSC also seem to set their sights low.

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