“In the recession that we have right now, I don’t think it takes a great depth of insight to see that people’s legal needs have increased tremendously,” said Peter Edelman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, at a two-panel event last Wednesday on the economic downturn’s impact on the justice gap between the rich and the poor. The panel was co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Center for American Progress, and the Washington Council of Lawyers.
Edelman was on the first panel, which addressed legal services on the national stage. He was joined by Ted Frank, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and Don Saunders, the director of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Joy Moses, a Policy Analyst in the Center’s Poverty and Prosperity Program, moderated the panel.
The Legal Services Corporation, or LSC, the single largest provider of civil legal aid in the United States, was a central point of discussion for the panelists, who discussed its history, funding, and future.
Congress founded the LSC in 1974. Conservatives pushed back against the LSC, and then-Governor Ronald Reagan was a leader. “When Governor Reagan became President Reagan, there was, unfortunately, a sea change,” Edelman explained.
Reagan reduced federal investment from nearly $800 million annually, in inflation-adjusted terms, and to this day it has only recovered to $390 million. President Barack Obama requested another $45 million for 2010, but its funding is controversial and fluctuates as political leadership changes. According to Saunders, “There may be no other issue in Washington as volatile as LSC.”
The effects of inadequate funding are apparent in the lack of legal services received by the poor. Saunders explained that only about 20 percent of their legal need is met “when you take into account not only all the people who show up at the door and are turned away but also those who don’t even try.”
Congressional restrictions tied to the receipt of LSC funding were also discussed by Edelman. “If you take a penny of LSC dollars, you can’t do a whole host of things, and even more pernicious than that, you cannot represent a number of human beings simply because of [immigration] status . . . ” he said.
But increasing funding for LSC is not necessarily the best approach to addressing the justice gap, according to Frank. “There are better ways to help the poor than sending them more lawyers,” he said. “We need to rethink the paradigm of legal rules that make the current system unaffordable.” He argued that if we are trying to improve access to civil justice, “it seems strange that we are asking taxpayers to fund more lawyers and not to look to rules within our own legal system that restrict access to justice.”
The second panel focused on poverty law in the District of Columbia. The three-person panel included the Hon. Inez Smith Reid, an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals; Susan Hoffman, a public service partner at Crowell and Moring LLP; and Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
Poverty law is of critical importance right now in the District. Smith explained that the circumstances D.C. communities of color were living in immediately preceding the economic downtown exacerbated the recession’s effects for two reasons: The District’s persistent high poverty rate of about 20 percent and “the rapid development of neighborhoods that have historically been mixed income,” including Chinatown, Columbia Heights, and the area around the Convention Center. This caused poverty to become much more concentrated because of a 50-percent decrease in the number of neighborhoods where low-income people can live.
Reid explained the importance of legal aid in helping the courts achieve their goals. “The District of Columbia Courts have an aspirational motto—open to all, trusted by all, justice for all. Now that is a tall order, and the courts cannot achieve all of that alone,” she said.
She thought that the joint efforts of the courts and legal aid have “been working quite well for us.” Reid explained, “We have, on one hand, the access to justice commission, that is working from the outside to make changes on the inside, and we have within the D.C. Courts our own access and fairness standing committee which seeks to monitor those changes within the courts to make sure that we are on the road to achieving justice.”
But legal aid’s future is unclear. The economic downturn has reduced contributions when they are needed most to help the impoverished. “There is little doubt that with shrinking resources and the problems we are having in terms of raising money, legal service providers are going to be doing less,” said Smith. “There are some creative things people are coming up with to stretch dollars further, but it is an unfortunate reality that with less resources we are going to do less.”
Two suggestions were made for doing more with less money. Smith mentioned that limited task representation can be used at critical moments when attorney services are not needed for an entire case but only for certain moments—which is already in place for some tenant cases in the District. And Reid said that the eight self-help centers in the District—which help people prepare for court by providing advice on how they can better represent themselves—can do a lot to help close the justice gap without providing lawyers in the courtroom.
Edelman said that there was much we do to improve legal services for the poor, but he argued that addressing the cause of poverty was a moral imperative. “We need to attack poverty in this country. If we don’t take that on in this wealthy country, we are simply failing to take on our responsibilities to the communities we live and the country we live in,” he said.
For more on this event please see the events page.