FEDERALLY FINANCED programs to provide legal services to the poor are in trouble across the country. Here in Washington, the budget cutbacks will hurt. It is expected that three major programs will be hit hard this year: Neighborhood Legal Services, which will lose $456,000; the Antioch School of Law clinical program, which will lose $177,000; and Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which will lose $75,000. These programs have been providing legal assistance in civil matters to those in the city whose annual income falls below $3,744 for an individual or $6,288 for a family of four.
President Reagan has expressed his belief that private organizations will fill in the gaps when federal funding is reduced, and the Washington legal community is making plans to accept his challenge. While deploring the severe budget cuts imposed in the Legal Services Corporation, local attorneys are doing more than wringing their hands. Last week, a committee of the Judicial Conference of the District of Columbia, led by Superior Court Judge John M. Ferren, issued a memorandum to all members of the bar proposing a series of steps that could be taken by individual lawyers to meet this crisis. Priority is given to encouraging attorneys to volunteer their services to the poor. Individuals are asked to contribute services directly to one or more of the legal agencies serving he indigent. If time is not available, attorneys are expected to contribute money ($200 a year is suggested) or office space or equipment. Firms are asked to assign lawyers, paralegals and secretaries for pro bono programs.
The committee also proposes that the pool of attorneys available for representing indigents be enlarged by allowing inactive members of the bar-- those who don't maintain a law office in the area but who work for corporations or trade associations --to handle any case in Superior Court without fee. The committee would allow law students, working under the supervision of attorneys, wider scope in representing indigents. Government attorneys are asked to volunteer their services provided that federal departments and agencies grant them time to do so. Finally, the committee encourages the expansion of voluntary mediation as a means of reducing caseloads in the courts.
It is an ambitious program that will involve a substantial commitment by the lawyers of this community. The poor of this city need these services. They should be given.