Academic journal article Policy Review

Legal Disservices Corp.: There Are Better Ways to Provide Legal Aid to the Poor

Academic journal article Policy Review

Legal Disservices Corp.: There Are Better Ways to Provide Legal Aid to the Poor

Article excerpt

The Legal Services Corp. (LSC) exists ostensibly to provide legal counsel in civil matters to people who cannot afford it. Since it was set up as a quasi-independent government corporation in 1974, it has weathered accusations that it promotes an activist, ideological agenda at the expense of its poor clients, and it has survived numerous attempts at abolition or reform.

Now the House Budget Committee, under the leadership of its chairman, Congressman John Kasich of Ohio, has proposed to phase out its annual appropriation, currently at $400 million, over the next two years. American Bar Association President George Bushnell has defended die program and has called LSC critics "reptilian bastards." Numerous defenders of the LSC have taken to the floor of Congress to denounce proposals to trim funding for the agency on the grounds that without it, America's poor will be deprived of civil legal representation.

We offer a twofold answer. First, Americans should realize that the LSC is not the noble bulwark of the rights of the poor that its supporters claim. Its effectiveness at serving the poor has always been marred by its pursuit of a political agenda that wastes effort and money and at times works to the long-term detriment of the poor.

Second, alternatives to the LSC do exist. Private legal-aid societies predated federally-funded legal services by almost 90 years, and would be thriving today had the lure of federal money not ensnared many of them. Other alternatives flourish in spite of the hostility of groups such as LSC grantees and the organized bar.

On a political level, the legal-services "movement," as it styles itself, is a 30-year success story. Since its founding as part of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," it has pursued its agenda virtually unimpeded. It has withstood budget cuts and a challenge to its existence in the Reagan years, when it waged an extensive "survival campaign." During the 1990s, it has enjoyed increasing appropriations. Its grantees receive an additional $255 million per year (as of 1993) from state and local governments, money from interest on many accounts that lawyers hold in trust for their clients (known as IOLTA funds), and private sources. Its biggest achievement, however, has been securing astronomical amounts of money for recipients of government programs. The movement, however, must face up to a crisis even greater than Republican opposition in Congress: The entire rationale for its existence is flawed:

Misunderstood needs. The LSC was created to provide help in civil cases. Most legal problems that poor people face fall into several basic categories: family law, including divorce, custody, guardianship, and child-support issues; housing, including disputes between landlords and tenants; financial issues, including bankruptcy, wills, estates, and credit problems; employment law; public benefits; prisoner rights; and immigration.

LSC supporters say that if it were not for the LSC, the 1.6 million poor people it assisted last year would be without any legal recourse whatsoever. The LSC itself proclaims its inadequacy to meet the needs of the poor by asserting that demand for its services vastly outstrips the $400 million provided by the federal government. The agency pleads for ever-increasing amounts of money on the basis of studies conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) and in several states. These studies purport to show that only a minority of the legal needs of the poor are being met. The state studies asserted that the range was 14 to 23 percent of need.

Their methodology appears defective, however, because they fail to distinguish between "unmet" and "unrecognized" legal needs. Poor people were contacted randomly by phone, mail, or in person and asked whether they had problems in various areas, such as housing. If they responded that they had a problem with roaches, for instance, it was counted as an unmet legal need, even if the person had no intention of involving a lawyer in solving the problem. …

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