March 27, 2009

“Civil Access To Justice Act” Needed To Uphold “Equal Justice Under Law”

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WASHINGTON – Legislation to improve access to legal assistance for those unable to afford it was introduced in the Senate yesterday. The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 (S. 718), sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and eight others, was referred to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for consideration. The American Civil Liberties Union welcomes its introduction as a positive step toward achieving much needed improvements for recipients of Legal Service Corporation (LSC) funding across the country.

The legislation would improve access to legal services through multiple avenues. It would restore the level of federal funding for legal aid to the amount appropriated in 1981 (adjusted for inflation), thereby countering years of regular cuts. More significantly, it would rescind restrictions on collecting attorneys’ fees and on the types of cases legal service attorneys can pursue, including prisoner reentry cases and some class action lawsuits. The bill would also retract a draconian provision that prohibits recipients of federal funding from using state, local and private funds to engage in advocacy efforts and represent certain categories of clients for which federal LSC funding can’t be used.

The following can be attributed to Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office:

“The American judicial system is rooted in granting ‘Equal Justice Under Law,’ but that principle has been under assault as the legal services provided to the least fortunate have withered. The result has been a system of justice that disproportionately endangers the poor and favors the wealthy. This legislation seeks to expand the efficiency of legal services attorneys by equipping them with the same legal tools available to other lawyers, while giving local legal aid clinics control over how to use non-LSC funds. Without such discretion, they cannot adequately represent and protect their clients’ interests.

“The current state of legal representation is unjust. Without these fixes, our system of justice will continue to be stacked against the least fortunate. At a time when legal services are desperately needed by Americans going through difficult financial times, this legislation would open the courtroom doors for more people in need of legal representation. The repair of our adversarial system should be a priority for Congress.”

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