Read the editorial on The New York Times’ site.
The Legal Services Corporation was created to help provide essential civil legal services to low-income Americans. In the mid-1990s, the Republican-controlled Congress imposed sweeping and unwarranted restrictions that continue to hamper the work of local legal services offices.
One egregious rule bars legal services providers from representing clients in class-action lawsuits – even though such suits can be an efficient way to obtain relief for problems affecting a large number of people. Another eliminates one deterrent to consumer fraud against the poor by preventing attorneys paid by legal services from claiming or collecting fees from opposing parties.
In coming days, the Senate is expected to pass a Justice Department appropriations bill that would allow legal services offices to use money raised from other sources to provide these and other important services to clients. Such offices often get the bulk of their financing from private foundations, wealthy individuals and state and local governments. Congress certainly has no business dictating how that money is used.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat of Maryland, has tirelessly championed this reform in the Senate. The House version of the Justice Department spending bill lifts the class-action ban* but leaves in place the restriction on how legal services providers can spend non-federal money. Once the measure clears the Senate, Ms. Mikulski and the White House will have to work hard to ensure that the final version includes the Senate provision.
The House bill does have one clear advantage: It provides $440 million to pay for legal services – $40 million more than the current Senate version.
In these difficult times, the demand for help is so high that legal aid offices around the country are being forced to turn away at least half their potential clients. Congress needs to make sure that the Legal Services Corporation is well financed, and it must lift these restrictions so lawyers can fully represent their clients.
*Correction: The editorial notes that the House bill would lift the restriction banning class actions; however, the House’s language would actually lift the restriction that prohibits LSC grantees from seeking attorneys’ fees with LSC and non-LSC funds. The House bill would leave intact the restriction on class actions and the restriction on non-federal funds.