Posted Apr 01, 2008 07:34 pm CDT
Historically, lawyers from around the country lobby Congress about American Bar Association priorities during ABA Day in Washington, D.C. This year, we will encourage members of other disciplines and professions to join us April 15-17 because they, too, have a stake in the rule of law.
As has been the case in many other years, one of the ABA’s chief priorities is increased funding for the Legal Services Corp. Ensuring access to the civil justice system for poor people is critically important. A lawyer’s assistance in civil cases can affect clients’ lives in material ways. It can mean the difference between keeping or losing one’s home, receiving or being denied needed benefits, and having or being deprived of custody of one’s children.
Without a lawyer, poor people do not have adequate access to the legal process, which means they do not receive justice. That is why, in 2006, the ABA adopted a “civil Gideon” policy supporting a right to counsel at public expense in civil cases where basic human needs are at stake. The term refers to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that individuals are entitled to counsel in criminal cases.
Yet, our country fails to provide civil legal aid to 80 percent of the poor people who need it. Worse, we have been depriving poor people of access to justice at this staggering rate for decades.
Each year, opponents of the LSC propose deep cuts to its budget, and, thanks to the hard work of bar leaders and advocates across the country, each year we prevail upon Congress to restore funding to previous levels. Preventing funding cuts each year might be counted as a short-term victory, but over time this dynamic has led to the extreme underfunding of the LSC and an access-to-justice crisis.
In 1981 the appropriation for the LSC was $321 million—that translates to $732 million in today’s dollars. While the need for legal services has grown significantly over the last 27 years, again this year the administration proposes to fund the LSC at only $311 million. It is time to get behind an appropriation for the LSC that will begin to approach full funding. It is time to insist on a “catch up” in the LSC’s budget.
We need to change the debate. If we do not, poor people are not the only ones who will suffer. When the vast majority of poor people cannot address their problems through the justice system—making their problems invisible—everybody in our communities pays the price.
We can make an investment in the LSC and prevent families from becoming homeless, or our communities will pay the greater price of addressing the broad range of problems that occur when families are forced onto the streets. We can make an investment in the LSC and make sure that a mother and her children get needed health benefits, or our communities will pay the greater price of their care when treatable conditions become emergencies.
We can make an investment in the LSC and ensure that children are placed in loving and stable environments, or our communities will pay the greater price of caring for traumatized children who do not get the support they need.
Funding legal services affects not only lawyers and our clients; it affects public safety officials, health care practitioners and child welfare advocates. It affects businesspeople, civil rights advocates, faith groups, engineers and nearly every other member of our communities.
We all have a stake in helping poor people address their problems. And, with the support of our communities, our message will be much more persuasive to congressional leaders than if lawyers deliver it alone.
That is why we must bring a cross-section of our communities to Washington, D.C., this year to join us on ABA Day to lobby for a “catch up” in LSC funding.