The shortfall in legal aid demands help from area lawyers

Monday, December 28, 2009

THE UNEMPLOYMENT rate in Ward 8 stands at 28.3 percent, according to the District's Department of Employment Services. In Ward 7, 19.5 percent are jobless; in Ward 5, more than 15 percent.

These are tough times for many, but they are particularly hard on those who, like many residents of these economically challenged wards, were already hurting before the housing and economic collapse. These are people who often turn to legal aid lawyers for help in securing food stamps, housing assistance and unemployment benefits. While criminal defendants are guaranteed a lawyer, those with civil issues do not have the same right and either must pay for their own lawyers or, if unable to do so, rely on legal aid organizations.

Yet, as The Post's Mary Pat Flaherty reports, legal aid groups in the region are suffering. Entire offices have been shuttered. Lawyers and staff have been laid off. According to a recent report by the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, "Programs report losing more than 25% in revenue and have shed approximately 12.5% of their lawyers and nearly 40% of non-lawyer staff, including paralegals, social workers, case managers and administrative support." The report concludes that "as a result of these staff cuts, thousands of District residents who need legal help did not get served."

In Maryland, Ms. Flaherty reports that the drop in services has been so steep -- and the need so great -- that the chief judge of the state Court of Appeals has pleaded with the state's lawyers to donate time or money to hard-hit programs.

Congress recently boosted the budget for the Legal Services Corp., the federally created nonprofit that funds representation for the poor in civil matters. Yet money alone is not the answer. Washington has long been known as the pro bono capital of the country, a place where lawyers generously volunteer to help all manner of clients who cannot afford counsel. Area lawyers and law firms are hurting, too, but D.C. area firms and lawyers -- among the wealthiest in the country -- need to dig deeper to fulfill their professional obligation to provide legal help to those who cannot afford it.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company