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In Defense Of Legal Services For The Poor

By Jane Bryant Quinn
Sunday, January 7 1996; Page H02

A congressional majority has decided that Washington is too broke to spend $400 million on legal services for the poor. But this minor budget issue isn't really about money (Congress found $7 billion more for the Pentagon this year than the president asked for). It's about whether this program should exist at all, or exist in its present form.

The private, nonprofit Legal Services Corp. (LSC) distributes federal money to 323 programs that operate more than 1,200 neighborhood law offices. The programs got another $232 million last year, from state, local and private sources.

None of this is for criminal work. These are civil cases, things such as divorces, flights from an abusive spouse, efforts to win child support, fights against illegal evictions and defenses for victims of consumer fraud. Enemies of legal aid say these groups bring destructive cases, and occasionally they have a point. But the good in legal aid shouldn't be thrown away with the bad.

By "destructive," critics usually mean class action lawsuits filed on behalf of the poor. For example, in 1983 a legal services group forced Illinois to disgorge child support payments collected from fathers but never paid to eligible mothers. In a famous 1967 case, a legal aid group (tied to a predecessor of today's LSC) stopped California from cutting medical benefits for low-income people.

But if California and Illinois were indeed acting illegally, what's destructive about suing them? If your health insurer illegally cut benefits, you and the other insureds would bring a lawsuit, too.

On the other hand, legal services groups have sued housing projects that tried to evict alleged drug dealers. LSC says that these are all cases where due process wasn't followed or where the culprit was one uncontrollable family member. But sometimes tenants groups have complained that delayed evictions endanger neighborhood safety -- and those tenants ought to be listened to.

The two most vocal opponents of the LSC are the Christian Coalition, which says that funding divorces is anti-family, and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which objects to many of the cases brought on behalf of migrant workers.

With respect to divorces, budgets are so tight that legal aid lawyers usually take these cases only to stop spousal abuse, LSC spokesman Robert Echols says. That's not "fostering poverty" as the coalition charges; it's saving the spouse (and sometimes the children) from vicious beatings. Anyway, I've noticed that born-again Christians get divorces too.

The AFBF contends that legal services groups extort unfair wage settlements from farmers, based on technical violations of laws.

A summary of farm cases, supplied by the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, argues that those violations are substantive: for example, paying less than the minimum wage; firing workers who protest; failing to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes; and withholding wages that workers earned.

AFBF spokesman Bryan Little says most underpayments are unintentional mistakes and could be settled for much less money than the legal aid groups demand. The question is whether legal aid enforces fair settlements or whether it's pushing for extra money as the price of dropping the case (a common tactic, in and out of legal aid).

LSC-funded groups have made some dumb decisions that play into their enemies' hands. In 1993 in Pennsylvania, for example, a group sued on behalf of a boy alleged to have raped a girl when he was 13 and she, 12. The boy wanted to stop the adoption of the child he fathered unless he was granted visiting rights. The judge turned him down.

The LSC protests that this case had an important point: Due process is needed before terminating parental rights. But my bleeding heart gets pretty hard when faced with an alleged rapist pleading for mercy because he's a father.

Still, the LSC's work is mostly uncontroversial. The offices it funds had 1.7 million clients last year, solving most of their problems with phone calls, letters or self-help advice.

Next year's proposed appropriation gives the LSC only $278 million, a cut of 30.5 percent. At least 300 offices would have to close, the LSC says. Around 500,000 clients probably would be turned away.

Many crippling restrictions -- too many to list -- also may be placed on LSC. Legal aid's enemies are going too far. But LSC should ask itself whether it carries some issues too far, too.

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