When Congress set up the Legal Services Corporation in 1974, it ordered that provision be made to serve clients whose major language is other than English.
Three years later, the D.C. Neighborhood Legal Services Program, which is funded by the corporation, has no Spanish-speaking lawyers, para-legals or secretaries, according to its executive director, Willie Cook. One reason, says Cook, is the general shortage of Spanish-speaking attorneys in the country.
But the lack of any Spanish-speaking staff members - in a city with Latin community estimated at 50,000 - has spurred criticism from insde and outside the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP). Using Legal Services Corporation funds, the NLSP provides Washington's poor with legal aid in non-criminal cases.
Many of executive director Cook's critics, including some members of his own board of directors, argue that he should divert staff from the program's seven existing offices into the Hispanic community centered in the Adams-Morgan, Mt. Pleasant area. "I've been pushing them to reorient themselves and not to wait for the Legal Services Corporation to give them more money," said Raphael Gomez, director of the Migrant Legal Action Program, which is based in Washington.
Cook explained his rejection of this proposal in a recent interview. He argued that it would be a self-defeating dilution of the program's effort to help poor blacks. A limited effort in the Latin community would generate so much interest, he said, that the office would have to close several days a week to give lawyers time to work on their cases.
"My aim," Cook said, "is to try to that community effective service, and I'll define what effective service is."
Cook said he plans to continue seeking a Spanish-speaking lawyer for the program's office at 14th Street and Park Road NW while asking the Legal Services Corporation to fund a new office in the Latin community. Last year, the corporation rejected Cook's bid for $168,000 to set up a base in Adams-Morgan with five lawyers, several para-legals, two law students and two secretaries.
Many of Cook's critics praise his administrative abilities and sympathize with his reluctance to take from the poor in other parts of the city to aid the Spanish-speaking poor. They also acknowledged some of the arguments Cook uses to reply to criticism.
That NLSP salaries - from $12,000 to $16,000 for non-supervisory lawyers - are not high enough to compete for the small group of heavily recruited Spanish-speaking lawyers.
Cook said at one point in the last two years he hired a Hispanic law school graduate who accepted the job, then pulled out to take a more lucrative spot with the federal government.
DaCosta V. Mason, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Washington, said he has faced similar difficulties. "The federal government has been hiring every Spanish-speaking student that has come out of our law schools," he said.
That the Legal Services Corporation's funding formula is based on erroneous census data. The formula indicates that Washington's grantee - the NSLP - receives over $10 per eligible poor person.
The $10 figure is based on an estimate of 122,000 eligible poor in Washington made from $1970 federal census data. The same census calculated that the city had 15,000 Spanish-speaking residents in 1970, but the city government now estimates the Hispanic population at 50,000.
Cook said, "It's ludicrous to say that we have (only) 122,000 poor people in based on outdated figures, but that he funding for all other legal services programs is based on the same 1970 census data and that other U.S. cities have suffered more sereve economic decline in the last seven years.
That NLSP is not benefiting from the recent increases in the Legal Services Corporation's budget. Cook said, and corporation officials confirmed, that the funding jumps - from $125 million in fiscal 1977 to $205 million in fiscal 1978 - are being targeted for long-neglected aeeas of the country, such as the South.
The corporation estimates that last year only 9.4 million of the nation's 29 million poor persons had minimum access to legal aid - the equivalent of two lawyers per 10,000 persons. This is one-seventh of the ratio in the private sector, corporation officials say.
Cook and his critics agree that the poor Spanish-speaking residents of the city - often newcomers to the country unfamiliar with the U.S. judicial system, as well as American language and culture - are not getting the aid they need from the varied collection of legal aid programs in the District.
Besides the NLSP, with its fiscal 1977 budget of $1,265 million and staff of 37 lawyers, these programs include:
AYUDA, Inc., a legal service and consumer protection agency that serves the entire metropolitan area with a budget slightly over $90,000 and a small staff that includes two Spanish-speaking lawyers:
The Legal Aid Society of Washington, with a fiscal 1977 budget of about $53,000, a staff that includes seven full-time and four part-time attorneys, and a branch office in the Latin community staffed full time by a Spanish-speaking para-legal and every afternoon by an attorney who speaks some Spanish.
The Antioch Law School's Urban Law Institute, a clinic with a staff of 30 part-time and full-time lawyer-teachers who aid the indigent while using the client's problems to educate law student; and,
Law Students in Court, a clinic for students from several local law schools that, on certain legal problems, gives the students an apportunity to practice in court.
With offices in the Adams-Morgan area at 1736 Columbia Road NW, AYUDA is the best known legal agency within the Spanish-speaking community, according to officials involved in local legal aid programs and others in the Latin community.
Yet, because its staff is so small, AUYDA tells would-be clients that they must wait one to two months to see a lawyer unless they have an emergency problems, said Richard Gutierrez, the agency's executive director. AUYDA - meaning "help" in Spanish - leans toward providing legal and consumer services instead of the direct legal aid that might strand a lawyer in court all morning, said Gutierrez.
"We're nowhere near meeting the needs of the Latin community here," he admits.
Like the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, AUYDA has tried, unsuccessfully, to get money from the Legal Services Corporation to expand substantially their legal aid to the Spanish-speaking community.
Those familiar with legal aid in Washington agree that improvement of legal services in the Latin community requires that the community be informed of the services available and that the services be more accessible.
Poor publicity limits the number of Latinos using Antioch's law institute, which is located on Columbia Road, according to an Antioch faculty member who asked to remain unidentified. "I have a feeling we're not doing enough . . . outreach" to make the community aware of the services Antioch provides, he said.
The NLSP office on 14th Street and Park Road NW provides another example. Although it is not far from the Adams-Morgan area, it is visited by few Spanish-speaking city residents.
Randal B. Kell, a lawyer in the 14th Street office for ten months, said he had two Spanish-speaking clients, saw only a handful of others come into the office, and referred 40 Spanish-speaking callers to AYUDA during the time he was there. "The office does not service the Spanish-speaking community at all," Kell said.
Some lawyers believe the Spanish-speaking residents stayed away not only because of what one former NLSP attorney described as the "brick wall" of 16th Street. "The Spanish speaking, like most ethnic groups, tend to stay in their own neighborhood," she said.
The apparent reluctance to leave the Latin community is also at times tied to the virtual inevitability of encountering interpreters, instead of Spanish-speaking attorneys. The presence of an interpreter "is very inhibiting," said Jack Scheuermann, executive director of the Law Students in Court program.
Pedro Lujan, director of the Social Services department of PEILA (Program of English Instruction for Latin Americans), agrees. He said the Spanish-speaking believe the presence of an interpreter "means maybe the attorney is not for me. They don't understand me," Lujan adds, "They (the Spanish-speaking) don't want to talk to attorney, not another person."
Some believe the Hispanic get involved in legal matters only as crucial as an immigration problem. These can be a "life or death matter for them. They come up with the money. . . They really sacrifice and friends really sacrifice to get the money," said attorney Kell.
Neglected, as a result, are the cases that the Spanish-speaking might initiate. Said one attorney, "You can't tell me that Spanish-speaking people don't get eviction notices. But where do they go?"