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Legal Aid to the poor is a bulwark of our cherished rule of law.

Do Unto Others


Mrs. F bought a new mobile home from a Virginia dealer. The model she saw was perfect, but the delivered home had defects. The walls were buckled, the floors cracked and the roof not properly fitted. Although the manufacturer kept promising help, there was no action to repair the condition of the home. Every time Mrs. F called it was a different person and a different story. Her guaranteed warranty seemed to be a worthless piece of paper. But a strong factual letter and a phone call from Legal Aid were sufficient to get all the repairs made. Because of the help, there was no litigation and the problem was solved.

Access to the legal system is traumatic enough without the barrier of poverty and ignorance of our rights. But, unfortunately, there is an almost limitless pool of people who have legal needs but don't know where to turn - people like Mrs. F. It was for them that the private nonprofit Legal Services Corporation was formed by Congress in 1974 to organize and coordinate legal aid to the poor.

Often this legal aid to the poor has to fight the powerful to get repairs done, find protection against violence-prone partners, secure child support from absent parents and intervene in situations where there is child abuse. For this reason, the Legal Services Corporation has many enemies.

When the 107th Congress convenes this next year, it's a safe prediction that legal aid will be a point of controversy. While the Senate has supported the LSC, since 1996, the House of Representatives has recommended a huge reduction in the appropriation for the Legal Services Corporation. From an appropriation of $400 million in 1994 and 1995, the House first tried to phase out the corporation, then tried to cut its funds to $141 million. For fiscal year 2001, the House Appropriations Committee again recommended $141 million, $164 million less than the 2000 budget. The Budget Committee report complained that "Too often … lawyers funded through federal LSC grants have focused on political causes and class action lawsuits rather than helping poor Americans solve their legal problems …. A phaseout of federal funding for the LSC will not eliminate free legal aid to the poor. State local governments, bar associations and other organizations already provide substantial legal aid to the poor."

Among the weapons the House has used are prohibitions against Legal Services Corporation taking class-action suits, lobbying, engaging in political activities and taking cases involving abortion, school desegregation and draft registration or desertion from the military. The legal aid organization may not represent certain categories of aliens, except that nonfederal funds may be used to represent aliens who have been victims of domestic violence or child abuse. (There have been challenges to these prohibitions: In one case, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit ruled that the First Amendment prevents Congress from telling federally funded lawyers they may represent individuals in welfare cases but they may not try to change the law. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from this decision this fall.).

Would that it were true that private help to the poor could meet the need. Bar associations, individual lawyers and law firms have worked hard to help those whose poverty keeps them from using the legal system to redress injustices. In Richmond alone last year, private lawyers contributed $400,000 worth of services through Central Virginia Legal Aid.

In 1998, the LSC handled more than a million civil cases - cases involving the working poor, veterans, family farmers, people with disabilities. More than two-thirds of the clients were women, most of them with children.

A little history: In the 1960s, as part of the war on poverty, the federal program of legal services to the poor was administered through the Office of Economic Opportunity. Because the OEC was considered by many to be left-wing, in 1971 President Nixon proposed that a separate corporation be formed to separate the program from political pressure. Thus, Legal Services, a private nonprofit corporation, was created by Congress to give grants to and to coordinate local legal aid offices.

To those of us in Richmond the success and the continued existence of LSC should be of special interest. According to John Jeffries' biography, "Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.," Justice Powell felt strongly about the need, and with consummate integrity and political skills, guided the American Bar Association and the Office of Economic Opportunity to an agreement to cooperate on the formation of LSC. This was a culmination of his efforts to help the poor with their legal problems, efforts that began with his work for the Family Service Society of Richmond in the 1930s. In 1964, he told the ABA: "It has been correctly said that respect for the law is at its lowest with underprivileged persons. There is a natural tendency for such persons to think of the courts as symbols of trouble and of lawyers as representatives of creditors or other sources of `harassment.' It matters little that these critics, through ignorance and poverty or for less excusable causes, are often responsible for their own difficulties with the law. They badly need competent counsel, at reasonable cost, who will provide the advice and assure the just treatment that will engender increased respect for the law."

A combination of government programs and volunteer efforts are working to give the poor the fair shake that will let them realize the power of the law works fairly for all of us. Some of the complaints they bring make the prosperous and powerful uncomfortable, but that is as it should be.

Let's hope that Congress will not continue to try to place roadblocks in the path of legal aid.

Rozanne Epps is an assistant editor at Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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