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President’s Budget Calls for Removal of Three Outdated Restrictions on Legal Services for the Poor

Cost-free measure would expand access to legal assistance amid economic crisis.

May 7, 2009
For Immediate Release:

Contact: Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, 212–998–6289
Susan Lehman, 212–998–6318

Cost-Free Measure Would Expand Access to Legal Assistance Amid Economic Crisis

Washington D.C. – The Obama Administration today called for the removal of select draconian restrictions on legal aid for the poor that have deprived countless families of equal access to justice.

The President’s Budget recommends that Congress remove three funding restrictions that have been placed for the last 13 years on independent legal aid organizations that receive part of their funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC).

“This cost-free measure would be a huge step toward expanding access to legal assistance amid the economic downturn.” says Rebekah Diller, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “The removal of these restrictions would make federal dollars go further and will permit legal aid organizations to more efficiently and effectively represent their clients.”

Specifically, the President’s Budget proposes that Congress permit states, local governments and private donors to decide how their contributions to LSC recipient organizations will be spent. Currently, LSC recipients are subjected to a uniquely harsh “poison pill restriction” that ties up all the funds of an organization once it receives its first dollar of LSC funds. Nationally, this poison pill restriction ties up $490 million in state, local, private and other non-LSC funds.

The President also proposes that Congress put legal aid attorneys on equal footing with all other attorneys by permitting them to seek attorneys’ fee awards when they have proven their case and when an underlying consumer protection, civil rights or other law authorizes the award. Any fees collected from a wrongdoer in the litigation would, in turn, fund the representation of more individuals in need.

The budget also proposes that legal aid attorneys be permitted to bring class actions on behalf of their clients. Class actions are sometimes the most efficient way to help a broad group of individuals who’ve been victimized by a predatory lender, foreclosure rescue scam, or other fraudulent activity.

These overreaching restrictions on LSC-funded organizations are the remnant of the Gingrich Contract with America, which attempted to eliminate civil legal services for the poor altogether. As a result of a compromise, legal services funding was cut dramatically and a series of binding restrictions on LSC recipients was put in place.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin at 212–998–6289 or at or Susan Lehman at 212–998–6318 or at