Since the 1960s, when the Office of Economic Opportunity administered the program, the government has helped the poor access the legal system of which our country is justly proud. Sometimes it just takes a phone call to straighten out a client’s problem. Sometimes a poor person’s problem is more complicated, but Legal Aid can probably help. Representing disabled clients who have been turned down for SSI, the local office has a success rate of more than 75 percent in cases before administrative law judges.
The Legal Services Corp. we have today is the descendant of the program Richard Nixon started in 1974, and the Central Virginia office, here in Richmond, is one of an array of regional centers that are funded by the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia. Nixon, along with the American Bar Association, was conscious of the fact that equal access to the justice system is crucial. If only those who can pay lawyers can use the system to try to solve their legal problems, our system of government won’t last long.
But from the beginning, Legal Aid has had opponents and detractors. And at every opportunity its enemies have tried to cripple the program. President Ronald Reagan sought to eliminate the funding but failed. Not a small part of Legal Aid’s victory was the 1981 “March on Washington” when more than 200 powerful lawyers went to the capital and testified and lobbied the administration and Congress. Still, Reagan did succeed in cutting the funds by 25 percent in 1982. And the 1996 Gingrich Congress cut funding by 28 percent. But the opponents seem to be succeeding by attrition. Although, since then, there have been minor increases, the current funding of $338 million for the whole country is less in real dollars than it has ever been.
Thus, even with support from the American Bar Association and contributions of countless hours of volunteer help from the legal community, the financial support for legal aid has been precarious. Now, legal aid faces a severe funding crisis. Although private lawyers gave Central Virginia legal aid some $70,000 last year and hundreds of private lawyers represent indigent clients free, CVLAS has had to make cuts of more than $300,000 in annual expenditures, reducing lawyer staff by one-fourth, support staff by one-third.
In a domino effect, the Richmond office has had to eliminate some of its services to victims of domestic violence and most of its help to clients involving consumer and employment law — except for legal advice. The program has avoided more drastic cuts in services because staff members have taken on increased workloads while receiving less compensation.
This may seem like just one more money problem, but it’s not. It’s a threat to all of us.
Prominent Americans with as disparate political ties as Richmond’s Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and Lyndon Johnson’s director of the War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver, have spoken for and worked forcefully to see that the poor had access to our justice system.
As federal Judge Learned Hand once said, “If we are going to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment, not ten: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’”
Shriver, who with Powell helped design the system in which the American Bar Association joined the government in designing the Legal Services System, has said: “In the preamble to the United States Constitution, before that document refers to domestic tranquility or providing for the common defense, or promoting the general welfare and securing the blessing of liberty for ourselves and our posterity — before that — the Constitution says, ‘We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice. …’”
That is our task and it’s urgent that we not forget it. Legal aid can use our support. S
Rozanne Epps is copy chief at Style Weekly. Her husband, A.C. Epps, was a founding member of the board of the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia.
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