Blog of Rights

Equal Access to Justice for the Poor

By Kelly Goss, Washington Legislative Office at 10:20am

The Legal Service Corporation (LSC) was established by Congress in 1974 to secure equal access to justice by providing civil legal assistance to low-income Americans. Today, LSC helps fund nearly 140 legal aid programs across the country in their efforts to represent the poor on a number of vital issues such as combating predatory lenders, assisting in mortgage foreclosure proceedings or addressing landlord-tenant disputes. However in these tough economic times, most legal aid organizations haven’t been able to keep up with the increasing number of poor people in need of assistance. Even while legal aid lawyers work endlessly to assist financially disadvantaged people in their legal affairs, many qualified low-income persons still lack adequate legal representation. In some parts of the country, roughly half of those qualified to receive legal assistance are unable to obtain it.

The important work of LSC and that of nonprofit LSC-providers has not been without other challenges. Efforts to defund LSC have regularly taken place since its inception by some Members of Congress who don’t seem to think the poor are worthy enough to be afforded equal access to justice. Worse, a conservative Congress in 1996 dramatically restricted the types of cases LSC attorneys could handle which have greatly hampered the effectiveness of legal aid providers to adequately represent their clients and have deprived poor people access to the courts which is essential to protecting equal justice under the law. By allowing these restrictions to remain in effect, Congress is essentially micro-managing LSC lawyers with respect to the types of claims and issues they can bring on behalf of their client, even when the legal aid lawyers are utilizing private funding sources.

Fortunately, the House of Representatives recently attempted to restore the injustice by introducing legislation entitled, The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009, which amends the Legal Services Corporation Act. Sponsored by Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA), John Conyers (D-MI), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Mel Watt (D-CA), Bill Delahunt (D-MA), Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Hank Johnson (D-GA), the bill seeks to improve access to civil legal assistance for those unable to afford adequate legal representation.

As a companion to the Senate bill of the same title that was introduced last spring by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD), John Kerry (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the House legislation would also improve access to legal services by restoring the level of federal funding for legal aid to the amount appropriated in 1981 (adjusted for inflation) in an effort to make legal services programs more fully operational after years of drastic spending cuts. More significantly, the legislation would eliminate restrictions that currently bar legal aid attorneys from filing class action law suits, collecting attorneys’ fees, engaging in legislative advocacy and representing certain types of clients such as prisoners on re-entry issues.

The bill would also rescind a draconian provision to an appropriations rider that prohibits all LSC-funded programs from using state, local and private funds to further their work in any of the pursuits that federal funding is restricted. This unprecedented provision is particularly troubling since it allows the federal government to essentially dictate how state and local governments and private citizens can spend their own resources. The practical effect of this provision has been mass inefficiency in the local legal programs that have to waste precious money duplicating overhead in order to fully serve their clients or else they must forego bringing certain types of cases altogether.

Tomorrow, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law will hold a hearing to discuss the Legal Services Corporation and access to justice issues in an effort to highlight the problems associated with the increasing number of poor people in need of legal assistance as well as those created by the restrictions and lack of adequate funding.

Ensuring that all Americans have the equal access to the courts and that the lawyers who represent them are afforded the same tools as other lawyers have at their disposal is a significant cause that the ACLU supports. Therefore we welcome this legislation, just as we did the Senate legislation, as another positive step toward ensuring that LSC-recipient providers across the country have the resources and tools required to provide equal access to justice to those in need.

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