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by James D. Wascher
April 30, 1995

For the past 30 years, talented, dedicated attorneys working in neighborhood law offices throughout Illinois and the rest of the country have struggled on woefully inadequate budgets to provide legal assistance to the poor in non-criminal matters. Since 1974, the federal government has furnished most of the funding for these programs through the Legal Services Corp.

Legislation now pending in Congress threatens the survival of legal assistance to the poor. For example, Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee, has proposed a bill that eliminates all funding for LSC over the next five years. Another bill, the "Common Sense Welfare Reform Act of 1995," would immediately abolish the Legal Services Corp. and convert its appropriation into block grants, allowing each state to decide whether to continue funding legal aid. A resolution just passed by the House and the Senate strips $15 million from LSC's appropriation for the fiscal year currently underway.

The need for legal assistance to the poor remains as great today as it has ever been. A 1993 American Bar Association survey concluded that 71 percent of the civil legal problems of low-income persons are not being addressed. Plainly, the legal aid offices that LSC supports already reach far too few of our fellow citizens who desperately need help. In fact, these offices had to turn away 60 percent of the eligible persons who asked for legal assistance last year. In this context, the elimination or reduction of funding for LSC would be a calamity.

In his 1971 message to Congress proposing to create the Legal Services Corp., President Nixon identified the invaluable community service performed by the neighborhood offices of programs such as the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation and Prairie State Legal Services Inc., all of which serve the Chicago metropolitan area today. "Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged and the largely forgotten people of our nation may seek help. Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car or misunderstanding over a welfare check-each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the nation's eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans."

LSC-funded programs offer a safety net for the grandmother living on Social Security who needs a lawyer to help her retain custody of her suddenly orphaned grandchildren, or to the indigent woman who is the victim of domestic violence. All of us know someone who will need such help, and will be unable to pay for it. We cannot abandon them.

As a society, we simply cannot ration justice only to those who are able to afford it. If we do, then we make a mockery of the words etched above the entrance to the Supreme Court of the United States: "Equal Justice Under Law." When he was president of the American Bar Association, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. said this motto "is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists . . . It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."

The Legal Services Corp., and the local programs it supports, deliver legal aid to the poor in an extraordinarily efficient fashion. Local legal aid programs used LSC's $400 million appropriation to serve 1.7 million clients in 1994. The Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago received a $6,167,000 grant from LSC last year and served nearly 35,000 clients directly, and tens of thousands more indirectly through class-action lawsuits and policy advocacy in Springfield and elsewhere.

Those in Congress who advocate dismantling LSC and converting its appropriation into block grants claim to support legal aid for the poor, but urge that the states, and not the federal government, fund this program. However, for practical reasons, changing over to block grants would have the same disastrous consequence as simply abolishing LSC outright.

The judges of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois last month adopted a resolution stating that, "n Illinois, at least, the likelihood that assistance would be provided by the state, given its present and prospective fiscal difficulties, is remote, and the restriction or elimination of federal funding would, in all probability, lead to a corresponding restriction or to the elimination of legal assistance."

As presently administered, federally-funded legal aid programs already are subject to the sort of local control that makes block grants so appealing to some in Congress. Each of the 322 programs that LSC supports is governed by a board of directors comprised of local attorneys and low-income persons. These local boards set the priorities for their respective programs, determining, for example, the types of legal problems on which each agency will concentrate its scarce financial resources.

In short, legal aid to the poor is one federal program that is not only locally managed and cost effective, but, in the words of Southern New England Law School Dean Francis Larkin, "promotes the principles of fair play and equality before the law upon which this country was founded." Congress therefore should reauthorize, rather than abolish, the Legal Services Corp., and should maintain, if not increase, LSC's current level of funding.
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Mr Wascher, a Chicago attorney, is on the Board of Directors of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago and the treasurer of the Illinois Committee to Save Legal Services. Copyright Chicago Tribune 1995

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