D.C. lawyers and judges here are working hard to do just what President Reagan ordered: increase volunteer legal aid for the indigent while the administration fights to abolish or at least scale down the federally funded Legal Services Corporation.
A committee of local bar notables -- including former defense secretary Clark M. Clifford, former attorney general Benjamin A. Civiletti and former transportation secretary William T. Coleman Jr. -- has formed to spearhead a drive to persuade local lawyers that the situation has reached what committee co-chairman John W. Douglas, head of the D.C. Bar Foundation, calls a "real crisis."
Douglas said the budget cuts that the administration has inflicted on the federally funded programs have forced the private bar to create a new -- and potentially more effective -- system for trying to serve the legal needs of low-income people.
But the blue-ribbon organization has got to do a forceful "selling job," said committee co-chairman, former solicitor general and Harvard Law Dean Erwin N. Griswold. The committee will have to persuade lawyers that this call for help is different from the yearly exhortations to lawyers to heed their ethical obligations to donate their time to help the poor.
If lawyers haven't got the time, contributions will be gladly accepted. If they don't have time or money, there are other options, such as lending office space or research facilities to assist those who take pro bono cases.
Those options and others are going to be considered at an extraordinary meeting to be held in early February at the D.C. courthouse. The meeting, Douglas said, will "challenge" the local bar to do something in response to the recent 25 percent cutback in the federally funded program and in other federal funds for civil legal services for the poor.
Those reductions have forced the D.C. Neighborhood Legal Services Program to close two of its seven offices and stop taking new cases except for emergencies. Antioch School of Law is losing more than $175,000 of its $537,000 program to assist low-income clients. A program for legal aid for the elderly has been reduced significantly.
D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Ferren, who ran the legal aid section at Hogan & Hartson before he went on the bench, said in an interview last week that in 1979, even before the cutbacks, 99 percent of all landlord-tenant cases and 85 percent of all domestic relations cases in D.C. Superior Court had at least one side without a lawyer, largely because a legal fee was not affordable.
Ferren, who heads the D.C. Judicial Conference's committee on civil legal services, said the recent cutbacks have made the need for private bar help all the more urgent.