Legal aid for the poor

Monday, November 16, 2009

CAPITOL HILL will soon face a choice on how to fund the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), the federally created nonprofit organization that provides legal representation in civil matters to poor people. Rather than coldly calculate the money it will allocate to the group, lawmakers should stop to consider the constituents who rely on these services: the newly unemployed, those facing loss of their homes, those in need of guidance to secure food stamps.

Tough economic times have led more poor -- and newly poor -- people to need legal help. The LSC has been grossly underfunded for years, and the amount of money it gets from private and non-federal government sources has been shrinking because of the recession. Fully funding the LSC and giving it as much flexibility as possible will help to ensure that the needy get help.

The House has approved the greater amount for the LSC -- some $440 million for the current fiscal year, up $50 million from fiscal 2009. The House also would allow legal aid lawyers to seek payment of fees if they prevail in a civil case. But representatives kept in place restrictions that prevent the group from using federal dollars in matters that deal with abortion or prisoners. Some limits on the use of federal funds may be appropriate, but it's not right for the federal government also to instruct the group on how it may and may not spend money it raises elsewhere. For example, legal aid lawyers are prohibited from using privately raised funds to launch class actions -- a tool that could help make representation of the poor more efficient and effective.

The Senate, on the other hand, has approved less money -- $400 million -- but lifted most restrictions, with the exception of those relating to abortion and prison matters, on how the LSC may use its funds. The Senate does not allow legal aid lawyers to seek fee awards in cases underwritten with taxpayer funds, but there is no such limitation on litigation funded by outside sources. Altogether, the Senate comes closer to unshackling the LSC in how it uses the roughly $500 million it gets annually from non-federal sources.

Members of the two chambers are expected to meet soon to reconcile their differences. Senators should agree to bump up the dollar amount, and representatives should embrace the less restrictive approach adopted by the Senate.

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