Helping Lawyers Help the Poor
Congress should free legal aid lawyers from burdensome restrictions.

Monday, June 22, 2009

THE HOUSE was right last week to call for a substantial increase in funding for the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), the nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to poor people in civil matters. But House members left in place unwise and unwarranted restrictions on how the LSC could use that money; senators considering the matter should lift those restrictions.

Created by Congress in 1974, the LSC's services have never been needed more. The organization provides grants to civil legal aid organizations that in turn help represent the poor -- and in these times, the newly poor -- who are struggling to survive the economic downturn. Many clients find themselves battling foreclosure or eviction or are forced to secure unemployment benefits or food stamps. The LSC also helps the indigent navigate a host of other legal thickets, including medical or insurance matters.

On Thursday the House approved a budget of $440 million for the LSC -- up $50 million from 2009 funding and $5 million more than the amount requested by the Obama administration. Lawmakers also lifted a restriction that kept legal aid lawyers who prevail in cases from recovering attorney's fees from the losing party -- a benefit available to winning lawyers in many civil rights or consumer protection cases. This move was important because those fees could be used to further supplement the LSC's budget.

The Senate, which is scheduled to take up the funding measure this week, should go even further in freeing legal aid lawyers from federal restrictions. The LSC has long been prohibited from using public funds to lodge class-action suits, represent undocumented workers or participate in any abortion-related litigation. While some limitations on the use of tax dollars may be warranted, there is no legitimate reason for federal restrictions on how local legal aid groups use privately raised funds or money they receive from state or local governments. The Obama administration, which supports the lifting of these restrictions, estimates that roughly $490 million in private and non-federal funds that find their way to local legal aid providers are "tied up" and subject to these federal limitations.

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