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Legal Services Receives Funding Increase, But Less Than Needed To Ensure Everyone Has Access To Justice - Opinion Editorial - Media Relations


Philip S. Anderson
American Bar Association President

For a 47-year-old woman in Wheeling, W.Va., funding from the Legal Services Corporation literally saved her life. Without help from her Wheeling legal aid office, which receives LSC funding, her Medicaid eligibility would have been withdrawn - and that could have been fatal for this impoverished dialysis patient.

She is only one of thousands of people who will benefit from LSC funding, which has been approved in the recent budget agreement at $300 million, or $17 million more than was provided last year.

Still, the money is little more than a down payment - funding only 20 percent of the legal needs of this country's poor.

LSC is a private, non-profit corporation created by Congress in 1974 to promote equal access to the system of justice for low-income people throughout the United States. In 1997, LSC grantees resolved 1.5 million civil cases, benefiting more than four million individuals, the overwhelming majority of them women and children.

Because it makes grants to 269 legal service providers nationwide, it is an example of one federal program whose dollars reach the needy directly.

While the 1999 figure of $300 million is a significant increase over 1998 funding, it is $40 million less than requested by LSC and the Clinton Administration, and it does not meet the 1996 funding level of $415 million.

Cutting LSC funding has been a congressional trend for several years.

In 1981 the LSC funding level was $321 million. Adjusted only for inflation and not the interim growth in the poverty population, an appropriation in 1999 of more than $600 million would be required just to "stay even."

Federal dollars channeled through LSC account for about 60 percent of the funding utilized by the LSC-funded local programs to address the legal needs of the poor. The remaining 40 percent comes from a wide variety of sources - lawyer contributions, foundation grants, court filing fees, and most significantly, Interest on Lawyer Trust Account programs. IOLTA, which operates in all states as a lawyer-organized fund to help pay for access to justice, recently has come under court challenge. Even if IOLTA continues indefinitely, it has not provided sufficient resources to meet all the needs, and the funding that it does produce fluctuates with interest rates.

In addition, the private bar makes an enormous "in kind" contribution in the form of donated, or pro bono legal services. More than 150,000 lawyers participate in formal pro bono programs affiliated with local legal service offices, and many thousands of others contribute their time through other means.

Recently, the ABA organized a small national army of volunteer lawyers to represent children with disabilities cut off from Supplemental Security Income payments under welfare reform. And the ABA has begun organizing yet another group of pro bono lawyers to represent immigrant detainees being held under new federal get-tough policies involving immigration. In addition, the ABA Young Lawyers Division has launched a new program to provide pro bono representation to senior citizens.

But more needs to be done. An estimated 80 percent of the nation's poor do not receive needed legal services.

The Wheeling legal aid office, like the rest of the legal service operations around the country, is short-staffed and able to meet only the emergency needs of its clients. Five years ago, it had three lawyers. Now it has only one. The office has made life-threatening conditions a priority, but it readily admits it can't serve all the needy clients in its community - let alone those in outlying areas.

Bar associations should continue to push for pro bono programs, and lawyers should volunteer their services. But Congress must realize that these programs must be funded, and at levels adequate to meet the needs of the country's poor.