Legal Aid Groups Struggle to Meet Low-Income Need

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Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Legal aid representatives described to the Senate yesterday their struggle to represent low-income Americans as a housing crisis and slow economy leave a growing number of people with more legal problems than they can handle.

At least half of the eligible applicants to nonprofit organizations such as Legal Aid Bureau get turned away because the nonprofits lack funding, according to Legal Services Corp., the agency that gives federal grants to legal assistance groups.

Typically, the applicants seek legal representation to avoid foreclosure, get help for a disabled family member or find protection from an abusive relationship, according to witnesses at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

"Because we are unable to assist them, they have nowhere else to go," said Helaine M. Barnett, president of the Washington-based Legal Services Corp.

Recent wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes have added to the number of people who need lawyers to represent them, the group says.

Congress is giving Legal Services Corp. $350 million in the current fiscal year, but the agency is asking for $471 million for fiscal 2009.

The presidents of the 50 state bar associations recently wrote a letter to congressional leaders asking for increased funding, saying the annual appropriation for Legal Services Corp. has not kept pace with inflation since the 1990s.

Subprime mortgages have led to widespread foreclosures among low-income Americans, they said.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, suggested that state bar associations take a more active role in offering free legal service to low-income people, possibly with a requirement that licensed attorneys provide the service. …