Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Once again, a Republican led administration is seeking to end federal funding for legal services for the poor by eliminating the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). LSC, founded in 1974, is an important funding source of legal services programs for the poor in the United States.
It is not new for those of us who have been working as legal advocates for the poor in various capacities. If at all possible, law schools (not just the clinical programs and externship programs) should denounce this effort by the current President and speak out in support of equal justice and access for all.
Previously, under the administration of Ronald Reagan, Republicans sought to ‘zero’ out the funding of the Legal Services Corporation. The effort failed and LSC lived to struggle on, terribly underfunded, but yet alive somehow amidst a wave of extreme right wing politics. Ronald Reagan and his cohorts persisted over and years and they pressed on again and again trying to cut the program.
Virginia Knapland, a managing attorney at Westchester Legal Services in the 1980's criticized Reagan's efforts at the time and asserted that if LSC was totally cut, “the courtroom doors will be closed to the poor.” Later in the mid 1980's when Reagan again tried to cut the agency completely, law student, James Cott opined in the Christian Science Monitor that “our democracy can only function if our legal system is available to all citizens, not merely those who can afford private legal services.”
Most of the programs that LSC funded back then survived but barely. They also became so overburdened with regulations and bureaucracy many had to remake themselves. They did not want their work to become meaningless because of the absurdity of our politics.
I was a Staff Attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) in the early 1990’s when again a GOP led effort sought to end LSC's funding. Newt Gingrich led that nasty effort and it resulted in a 56 percent cut to our funding. Several of our offices had to be closed and many attorneys and paralegals had to be let go. I would have been one of those attorneys but so many people at NLSP decided to retire and move on, a number of us were able to retain our positions.
The sojourn of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington is a perfect example of the callous governing that has gone on at time since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 in regards to legal services for the poor funding by taxpayers. NLSP once had 11 offices in the city, scattered throughout the city, and had become one of the model programs for advocacy and change in the U.S. regarding the rights of poor people. After the attacks, it had only two offices. In particular, NLSP was at the forefront of changing the nation's landlord-tenant laws to respect and recognize the rights of not just tenants able to afford legal counsel but poor tenants often living in substandard housing. NLSP remains in operation today but is remarkably different as a result of the various attacks over the years by Republican administrations.
Yet to put it all in perspective, even with the many offices NLSP had been operating with LSC funding at various times, both before and after the cuts, it still did not reach the many poor people in the city who needed a lawyer in a divorce, or landlord-tenant dispute, or small claims matter, or a simple workmen’s compensation claim. The LSC funding, to use a terrible, overused metaphor was a drop in the bucket of what is actually needed and that can be afforded.
That is why to cut LSC, without a replacement program, is an act of political cowardice. It doesn’t save the government much money at all and if it does happen, it will likely cost the court systems across the country much more in time and money in trying to handle the confusion created by a decision which is devoid of real thought and deliberation.
It is hoped that law schools will speak our forcibly on this issue and the deans of the law schools will use their influence to once again stop another misguided Republican effort to end federal funding for legal services for the poor.