Legal Aid: Scales of Justice

Tucked in the President Obama's budget is a proposal to repeal several rules from the 1990s that make it more difficult to provide legal help to the poor . . .

May 25, 2009

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"Tucked in President Obama's budget is a proposal to repeal
several rules from the 1990s that make it more difficult to provide legal help
to poor people.

The rules were part of Newt Gingrich's 'Contract with America,'
which overhauled and cut a number of services for the poorest Americans. At the
time, Congress cut legal service corporation budgets by a third and prohibited
these non-profit law firms from practicing certain aspects of law, such as
filing class-action suits.

The change has been inefficient and unfair, according to the
Brennan Center for Justice at the New York
University School of Law.

Congress did not stop at dictating how these organizations
could spend federal funding. Congress also prohibited these firms, often known
as Legal Aid societies, from spending state and local funding and private
donations on civil disputes on behalf of poor Americans.

To get around the restrictions, some communities set up
separate non-profit groups, funded by grants and donations, to help people who
are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure, for example.

The federal rules force communities into an inefficient use
of time and resources, according to an analysis from Rebekah Diller, deputy
director of the Brennan
Center's Justice Program.

Much Legal Aid work concerns circumstances unique to each
family involved, such as domestic violence, divorce or child custody. But there
are times when a number of people may find themselves in similar circumstances,
as when benefits or programs are incorrectly administered or when predatory
lenders target certain populations. The federal rules prevent Legal Aid lawyers
from making the best use of court time and money by pursuing such cases
together. They could, in theory, pursue each case individually. In fact, some
people are helped by the newer groups that receive no federal funding, and some
people get no help.

The president's proposed rule changes would not cost any
more federal funds, but it could free local resources to be spent as local
people see fit, to help their residents.

'The president's cost-free measure would substantially
expand equal access to legal assistance in civil cases,' the Brennan Center said.

Fortunately, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia's first Congressional District
is in a good position to help this change along. As chairman of the Commerce,
Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Mollohan will have first
crack at preparing the draft of the bill that other members of Congress will
work from. He will have the opportunity to include the president's recommended
rule changes from the start.

Under the current rules, low-income people who rely on
federally funded legal services corporations cannot use the same legal tools
available to other Americans. That concept is unworthy of this country.
President Obama is right to ask Congress to change it."

To access the editorial on the Charleston Gazette's website, click here.