New Hope For Narrowing the Justice Gap

February 4, 2010

As I wrote awhile ago, civil legal services for low-income people are hobbled by two major impediments–inadequate funding and restrictions on what local legal services providers can do if they receive funds from the Legal Services Corporation.

The Corporation’s funding, in real dollars, has been declining since 1980, when its appropriation was sufficient to provide a “minimum level of access” to legal aid, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people in every county.

It was clear from the get-go that the Fiscal Year 2010 budget process wouldn’t do much about the funding problem. President Obama’s budget proposed $435 million for LCS–$45 million more than the Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation, but about $50 million less than LCS had requested.

The House of Representatives approved $440 million and the Senate $400 million. The negotiators ultimately split the difference. So LCS will have $420 million for the current fiscal year–about $345 million less than the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimated would be needed to restore minimum access.

But it did seem for awhile that this year’s budget process might significantly modify the restrictions. The President’s proposed budget included amendments to the Corporation’s authorizing legislation that would have allowed LCS grantees to seek attorneys’ fees in cases where they prevailed and to use non-LCS funds for activities that had been banned.

The House adopted the attorneys’ fees recommendation but left the remaining restrictions in place. The Senate lifted most of the restrictions on uses on non-LCS funds. On this matter, the House prevailed in the negotiations that led to the final bill.

But all is not lost. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) have introduced identical bills–the Civil Access to Justice Act (H.R. 3764/S. 718)–that would eliminate all restrictions on uses of non-LCS funds, except (wouldn’t you know it) participation in litigation related to abortion.

Permissible uses of LCS funds would also be broadened to permit collection of attorneys’ fees and participation in class action suits “grounded in existing law.” The prohibition on representing prisoners would be modified to permit litigation on issues related to a prisoner’s “ability to reenter society successfully.” And some non-citizens now denied representation could be served.

H.R. 3764 and S. 718 are technically bills to reauthorize LCS–something that should have been done 30 years ago. In addition to addressing the restrictions, they would also raise the permissible ceiling on appropriations to $750 million. This, the sponsors say, would be the equivalent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to the last appropriation that met the minimum access standard.

Of course, authorizing this much doesn’t mean that LCS will get it. But the figure establishes a reasonable target and a benchmark for the next five years.

The bills aren’t perfect. But they would bring civil legal services for low-income people into much closer alignment to what other Americans can receive. And they would enable LCS-funded nonprofits to engage in actions that would effectively and efficiently address the needs of large groups of clients.

So I think they deserve our support. And they’re going to need it because it’s obvious that our elected leaders can’t deal with more than a couple of controversial issues at a time. And if past is prologue, “equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” won’t be one of them.

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