The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry

Original Reporting | By Heather Rogers |

June 6, 2012 — Ask people about the things that make America a “country of laws,” and one answer you will likely get is that everyone is entitled to be represented by a lawyer of his or her choice. But that promise has little meaning to more and more families at or near the poverty level. They’re among the millions of Americans for whom having a lawyer is a luxury beyond reach. Such families cannot afford a lawyer to defend them in an eviction proceeding, to fight a wrongful denial of veteran’s benefits, or to help get a restraining order to protect against an abusive spouse. 

People without representation have legal rights as a formal matter, said James J. Sandman, president of the LSC, “but if you don’t know what they are and don’t know how to take advantage of them, then they mean nothing.”

While the right of an indigent defendant to have counsel appointed for criminal cases is constitutionally-protected, there is no such right for lower-income people who need to bring or defend civil cases, leaving them with limited access to the justice system. Congress, however, created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974 with the intention of providing high quality civil legal aid to poor and working class Americans — those in households at or below 125 percent of the poverty level (currently $27,938 for a family of four). And independent observers, including bar associations, sheriffs’ offices, and State Supreme Court justices, widely acknowledge that LSC-funded lawyers perform vital work for their clients.

“These are basic legal services for low income people to have a place to live, feed their kids, deal with an abusive spouse, deal with their education so their kids would have more of an opportunity,” explained Esther Lardent, president and chief executive officer of the Pro Bono Institute, a supporter of the LSC. “We’re not only helping those individuals but society overall — there’s a cost if you don’t help people’s situations improve.”

Despite its achievements, conservatives have consistently targeted the LSC, attempting to strip it of resources, and, at times, to abolish it. This pressure began in earnest in 1981, just months after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. Until that year, the LSC’s budget had grown consistently. Reagan was unsuccessful in his attempt to shutter the LSC entirely, but he succeeded in cutting its budget by 25 percent. In the following decade, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congress hit the program with even greater constraints. The LSC has been hamstrung by major budget cuts and service restrictions under both Democratic and Republican presidents ever since.

The push against the LSC continues. Just last month, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) proposed an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 House Appropriations Bill that would have ended all funding for the LSC. (The amendment failed, but garnered 122 votes.)

John T. Broderick Jr., a former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire State Supreme Court, said, “Justice shouldn’t be determined by politics, bias, prejudice…We have to give people representation or we have to be honest about it and say it’s not a priority in American life.”

When asked about whether their constituents have been or would be hurt by cuts to the LSC, the LSC’s opponents in Washington don’t squarely answer the question. Instead, they claim the services LSC-funded programs provide are unneeded, and condemn the LSC as just another “advancement of Big Government,” as Representative Scott stated on the House floor.

In the face of such arguments, the LSC’s proponents have prevented its elimination. But they have done little to replenish, let alone expand, its resources. Similarly, the LSC’s advocates outside of government have been unable or unwilling to raise broader public awareness of the importance of the program and secure robust funding to deliver quality legal representation to the millions of Americans in genuine need.

Erin Corcoran is a professor of law and the director of the Social Justice Institute at the University of New Hampshire. From 2007 to 2009, she was on the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Apporpriations working with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, which determines the LSC’s funding.

“Most people either don’t know what the LSC is or they think they’ll never need it,” Corcoran said. “But a lot of us could be there, especially with foreclosures and the economy. A lot of us are three steps away from needing that kind of help.”


Massive cuts in real dollar terms

At first glance, it appears that the LSC’s current budget is marginally higher than it was in 1981: a total of $348 million in this fiscal year versus $321 million back then. But this comparison fails to take into account either inflation or the increasing number of people who are eligible for services. Even if the number of those eligible for services had remained constant, Congress would have had to appropriate $812 million this year to account for inflation over the past three decades.

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