Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

`Poor Person with a Lawyer' Called Target of Cutbacks Curbs in Legal Services for Poor Come Just as Changes Increase Need

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

`Poor Person with a Lawyer' Called Target of Cutbacks Curbs in Legal Services for Poor Come Just as Changes Increase Need

Article excerpt

LEGAL AID PROGRAMS for the poor are laying off lawyers and curtailing activities because of federal budget cuts, at the very time when demand for their expertise is growing as a result of imminent changes in laws on welfare, Medicaid, housing and immigration.

Hit particularly hard are 16 national organizations that provide specialized legal advice to lawyers handling an immense variety of cases in neighborhood offices around the nation. Congress has already cut the budget for these "national support centers" by 24 percent this year, to $8 million, and most of them expect to get no federal money next year.

The representation of poor people is, in many ways, an arcane practice requiring information not routinely taught in law schools and not generally available from the private bar. Some legal service lawyers have worked in the field for decades and know more about the problems of poor people than the judges who handle their cases.

The budget cuts reflect the conviction of many Republicans in Congress that legal aid lawyers promote a left-wing agenda through lobbying and litigation. The House has voted to impose new restrictions that would, for example, bar legal aid lawyers from taking part in any "litigation, lobbying or rule-making involving efforts to reform a state or federal welfare system."

"The only thing less popular than a poor person these days is a poor person with a lawyer," said Jonathan D. Asher, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver.

But Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., sees the situation differently. "The Legal Services Corp. is more focused on advancing grand social causes than on helping the poor with ordinary legal problems," he said, referring to the private, nonprofit organization set up by Congress in 1974 to finance legal aid for poor people in civil cases.

While the legal services program has received $5.7 billion in federal money in the last 20 years, it has generated political passion out of proportion to its budget. Ronald Reagan clashed with legal services lawyers representing migrant farm workers when he was governor of California, and as president he tried to end Legal Services Corp.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a favorite target of conservatives, served on the corporation's board for four years and was chairwoman in 1980 and 1981.

The federal program distributes money to 323 legal service organizations with a total of 1,200 offices around the nation. In general, a person is eligible for free legal services if he or she has income of less than $9,338 a year, and a family of four qualifies if its income is less than $18,938. …

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