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Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009

Federal legislation to reauthorize the Legal Services Corporation.

Published: April 27, 2010

Reauthorizing & Revitalizing the Legal Services Corporation


In 2009, legislation was introduced in both chambers of Congress to reauthorize the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) – the single largest funder of civil legal services in the country and one of the pillars of our nation’s commitment to “equal justice for all.”  LSC administers and oversees grants to local, independent organizations providing civil legal aid to low-income people in every state. 

The legislation, the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009, was introduced in the Senate on March 26, 2009 by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) as S.718.  And in the House, Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA) introduced his version of the legislation as H.R. 3764.  The two versions are largely the same, but differ in a few regards.

The Civil Access to Justice Act would reauthorize LSC for the first time in over 30 years and would:

1) Increase the authorized funding level for LSC to $750 million, which, if appropriated, would bring LSC back to the high water mark of funding that was achieved in 1981 (in real dollars).  In Fiscal Year 2010, LSC was funded at $420 million.

2) Repeal the most onerous of the 1996 LSC funding restrictions. The legislation would repeal several restrictions that Congress originally attached to LSC’s funding in 1996 and that prevent LSC grantees from representing their clients most efficiently and effectively.  Significantly, the Civil Access to Justice Act would repeal the restriction on non-LSC funds (except the legislation leaves in place the current restriction prohibiting LSC grantees from participating in abortion-related litigation with any of their funds); the restriction that prohibits LSC funds from being used to participate in class actions; the restrictions that unduly proscribe programs’ ability to engage in legislative and administrative advocacy; and the restrictions that make certain categories of people ineligible for LSC-funded representation.

3) Modernize oversight and governance at LSC to address the governance and oversight concerns of the Government Accountability Office.

Download a fact sheet on the bill.


Status of the Civil Access to Justice Act

In the Senate, the bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), which Senator Harkin chairs.  A majority of the members of the HELP Committee have signed on as cosponsors of the bill.

Read Senator Harkin’s introductory remarks.
Track the Senate bill’s progress & cosponsors.

In the House, the legislation has been referred to the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law.  A majority of the members of the House Judiciary Committee have signed on as cosponsors of the bill.

A subcommittee hearing was held on April 27, 2010 at which the Brennan Center’s Rebekah Diller testified (read and watch Diller’s testimony here). 

Read the testimony of all the witnesses:

In the House, the bill will next be marked up by the Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee and then sent to the full Judiciary Committee for its consideration. 

Read Representative Scott’s introductory remarks.
Track the House bill’s progress & cosponsors.


Support for the Civil Access to Justice Act

In February 2010, over 150 diverse organizations, including state Access to Justice Commissions and IOLTA funders, civil rights organizations, national housing, consumer rights’ and disability advocates, members of the faith community, non-profits’ rights organizations, and others sent a letter to Congress expressing their support for the legislation.

The American Bar Association also supports passage of the Civil Access to Justice Act, and leaders of over 60 state and territorial bar associations and five national bar associations recently sent a letter in support of LSC’s reauthorization to Congress.

The Washington Post has also stated its support for the Civil Access to Justice Act (Unshackling Legal Aid, March 14, 2009).

Learn more about the Brennan Center’s broader efforts to increase access to civil legal representation and repeal the 1996 LSC funding restrictions through
litigation and our national public education campaign.