By Rhonda McMillion
Jul 2, 2009, 12:20 am CDT
Momentum is building on Capitol Hill for legislation that would strengthen the Legal Services Corp.’s support for delivery of legal services to poor people throughout the United States.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a former legal aid attorney, is leading the effort in Congress to bolster the delivery of legal services to the poor. He recently introduced S. 718 (PDF), a bill that would authorize Congress to appropriate up to $750 million for the corporation per year.
The bill also would eliminate some restrictions on the types of cases handled for low-income clients by legal aid programs that receive LSC funding. Further, it would implement a number of improvements in LSC governance based on recommendations by the Government Accountability Office, which evaluated the LSC in 2008.
Spending authorized by Harkin’s bill highlights the need to increase federal funding for legal services at a time when the needs of the poor are on the rise. The recession has withered state funding for legal aid programs, as well as revenue from interest on lawyer trust accounts.
The LSC, created by Congress in 1974 as a nonprofit corporation, distributes federal funds through competitive grants to legal aid programs at the local level. The LSC currently provides funding to 137 programs that support 900 offices serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. More than 51 million Americans, including many military families, qualify for assistance from LSC-funded offices on a variety of civil legal matters. But the LSC estimates that overburdened legal aid offices must turn away more than 1 million people every year—more than half of those seeking help.
Even though the LSC’s fiscal 2009 appropriation of $390 million represents a $40 million increase over last year, the corporation has been seriously underfunded for more than two decades. President Barack Obama included another $45 million for the corporation in his budget request to Congress for fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1.
The LSC has been operating since 1980 without being reauthorized by Congress. As a result, the corporation subsists on annual appropriations legislation. In 1995, when some members of Congress sought to eliminate the LSC, legislators struck a compromise to maintain it with limits on the categories of clients and cases that legal aid offices could handle. Those restrictions have been attached to annual LSC appropriations bills passed by Congress ever since.
“Proper reauthorization of LSC is decades overdue, and antiquated rules severely limit LSC’s effort to help people in need,” said ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. in a recent statement. The association is a staunch supporter of the corporation.
THE SPIRIT OF COMPROMISE
Harkin’s bill would ease some of the restrictions imposed on legal aid offices that receive LSC funding. Among its provisions, the bill would allow legal aid offices to collect attorney fees from opposing parties when authorized by statute. The bill also would permit legal aid attorneys to bring class action suits grounded in existing law, and it would lift restrictions on how offices use nonfederal funds for other types of cases, except those related to abortion.
The restriction on abortion litigation was retained as a compromise effort to build support for S. 718. Certain other limits on cases handled by LSC-funded programs also would be retained, including prohibitions against representing undocumented immigrants (with limited exceptions), inmates challenging prison conditions, and individuals charged with illegal drug possession who are in public housing eviction proceedings.
In writing to Congress and the executive branch Office of Management and Budget, Wells, a partner at Maynard Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala., said that the recession “warrants a fresh look at ways that will, without cost to the government, significantly increase the amount of money available to provide legal aid to the poor.”
This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses ABA advocacy efforts relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.