THE LEGAL SERVICES Corporation has been living on borrowed time since 1980. That's when authorization for the program that provides free legal help in civil matters to the poor expired, and the work has since proceeded on the basis of continuing resolutions. It's a precarious way for any organization to operate, especially since the Reagan administration has made it clear it sees no need for a federally funded legal services program at all. Twenty-five percent of the program's operating funds has been cut for the last two years.

Initially, in 1975, the Legal Services Corporation provided assistance mainly to the urban poor, but special units were developed to serve rural areas, American Indians, migrant farmworkers, the institutionalized, the disabled and the elderly. Congress also enacted certain restrictions--barring legal services lawyers from getting in touch with elected officials unless requested, limiting representation of aliens and tightening rules on class actions. Nor may Legal Services lend a hand in school desegregation, non-therapeutic abortion or certain violations of the Selective Service Act. In recent years, most of the poverty lawyers' work has been in family problems, landlord and tenant cases, consumer cases and income maintenance--areas remote from the controversial class-action questions of the earlier years.

The 25 percent cutback in funds has had a heavy impact. Some 28 percent of the program's lawyers left to find other work, and 300 field offices have been closed. While the private bar has made some effort to fill the gap, tens of thousands of cases have had to be turned away--this at a time when economic conditions have aggravated the problems of the poor. "We've gone strictly to emergency (cases), either life- threatening, absolute cutoff of money, termination of heat during the winter or a spouse being battered, before we would take on a domestic relations case," says the director in Ohio. Adds the director in Miami: "We continue to do what we call survival issues. That's our focus now--people's food, shelter and income."

To continue even minimal services, the program needs from Congress the support it is denied by the administration. It is asking now for only a modest 6.7 percent increase to compensate for inflation. Support for legal assistance to the poor is an indication that this nation is committed to equal justice. Reauthorizing the Legal Services Corporation and providing minimally decent funding will demonstrate a congressional determination to pursue that goal.