Anyone who hasn’t led a charmed life knows how important it can be to have an attorney. They also know that private legal help doesn’t come cheap.
In 1974, Congress established the Legal Services Corporation to help provide free legal assistance in civil matters to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The Corporation receives federal funds through annual appropriations.
Most of these funds go to nonprofit local legal aid programs. Many of these programs also receive funds from state and local governments, private donors and/or their state’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program. This program gives them the interest on clients’ funds deposited in a separate account when the costs of investing them otherwise would exceed the return.
But there’s a large and growing gap between low-income people’s needs for legal services and the capacity of the programs to provide them. According to a recent LCS report:
- For every client served by an LCS-funded program, another is turned away because of insufficient resources.
- Fewer than one in five legal problems low-income people experience is addressed with help from an attorney.
- There’s only one legal aid attorney for every 6,415 people below 125% of the federal poverty line, as compared to one attorney for every 469 people above it.
- State courts, especially those that deal with issues affecting low-income people, are handling more cases involving a litigant without an attorney. A high percentage of these litigants qualify for legal aid.
The problem here begins with the federal budget. Like many well-intentioned programs, LCS has never been adequately funded. But up until 1981, it received enough to meet a minimum access standard, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people, in every county in the U.S.
Then came deep cuts, prompted by the Reagan administration’s hostility to the program. Though the budget has since been increased, it’s never recovered to minimum access level. According to a Center for American Progress brief, it would need about $765 million to do so–about double the current appropriation.
A second budget-related blow came when the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. Programs receiving LCS funds were prohibited from engaging in class actions or advocating for legal reforms, even with funds from other sources. This left them no choice but to litigate similar cases one at a time, rather than seek systemic remedies. They were also prohibited from seeking attorneys’ fees that could otherwise be claimed.
The recession has exacerbated the funding problem in various ways.
- IOLTA revenues have plummeted because the Federal Reserve Board has slashed interest rates to unfreeze credit markets and stimulate spending.
- Some state and local governments have cut their support for legal aid programs to help close their budget gaps.
- Rising unemployment and cutbacks in hours have made more people eligible for free legal services.
- More eligible people need help with problems like foreclosures, debt, access to public benefits, domestic violence and child support.
For Fiscal Year 2010, LCS requested $485.1 million–about $295 million less than would be needed to serve all those currently seeking help from the local programs it supports.
The House appropriations bill would provide $440 million. It would lift the restriction on attorneys’ fees, but leave the rest of the restrictions intact.
The Senate version would provide $400 million–just $10 million more than in Fiscal Year 2009. But it would lift most restrictions on grantees’ uses of non-LCS funds. Prisoners and (surprise!) women needing help with abortion issues would still be out of luck.
The Washington Post recommends that House-Senate negotiators adopt the best of both–the House funding figure and the flexibility afforded by the Senate. This won’t close the justice gap. But it’s probably the best we can hope for until the vital, unmet legal needs of poor people become a higher priority.