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Dem. Senators' Bill to Increase Legal Services Funding, Lift RestrictionsA key group of Democratic senators has introduced a bill to increase funding for the Legal Services Corp. -- established in 1974 by Congress as a nonprofit that funds civil legal aid -- and to lift many of the restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys, such as the prohibition on the filing of class actions and the collection of attorney fees. The senators said the bill was necessary because the federal commitment to legal services is not as effective as it needs to be.
The National Law Journal2009-03-27 12:00:00 AM
A key group of Democratic senators has introduced a bill to increase funding for the Legal Services Corp. (LSC) and to lift many of the restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys, such as the prohibition on the filing of class actions and the collection of attorney fees.
The measure was introduced by senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, both D-Mass.; Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both D-Md.; Dick Durbin D-Ill.; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
"As a former legal services attorney, I know firsthand how crucial legal assistance is to protecting the safety, security and health of struggling families who have no place else to turn," said Harkin. "Unfortunately, limited resources and severe restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys impede the ability of legal aid attorneys to provide the most meaningful representation. This legislation restores the principle of equal justice under law."
The senators said the bill was necessary because the federal commitment to legal services is not as effective as it needs to be. In 1974, Congress established the LSC — a nonprofit corporation funded by Congress — to fund civil legal aid. LSC, however, has not been reauthorized since 1981, and federal funding has been slashed since 1995: from $415 million to $350 million in fiscal year 2008, with only a recent increase to $390 million for fiscal year 2009.
Moreover, they added, Congress has imposed severe restrictions on the use of both federal as well as nonfederal funds — impeding attorneys' ability to provide the most effective legal assistance.
The legislation, called "The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009," does the following:
• Increases the authorized funding level for LSC to $750 million, which is approximately the amount appropriated in 1981, adjusted for inflation, which was the high-water mark for LSC funding. At the time, this level was seen as sufficient to provide a minimum level of access to legal aid in every county. Adjusted for inflation, this "minimum access" level would need to be about $750 million today.
• Lifts many of the restrictions currently placed on legal tools that LSC-funded attorneys can use to represent their clients. The bill lifts the prohibition on collecting attorney fees, permits legal aid attorneys to bring class actions grounded in existing law and permits lobbying with nonfederal funds. "In the spirit of compromise," the senators said, the bill does maintain the prohibition on abortion-related litigation as well as many of the limits on whom LSC-funded programs can represent, including undocumented immigrants (with limited exceptions such as victims of domestic violence), prisoners challenging prison conditions and people charged with illegal drug possession in public housing eviction proceedings.
• Lifts all restrictions, except those related to abortion litigation, on the use of nonfederal funds. Lifting these restrictions allows individual states, cities and donors the ability to determine themselves how best to spend nonfederal funds to ensure access to the courts.
• Provides for better governance at LSC. Recent Government Accountability office reports highlighted the need for better corporate governance and oversight. A central feature of the bill is provisions to improve corporate practices.
• Authorizes a grant program from the Department of Education to expand law school clinics.
The bill is supported by, among others, the American Bar Association, Brennan Center for Justice, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National Organization of Legal Service Workers and United Auto Workers.
"I hope all senators will give serious consideration to reauthorizing the Legal Services Corporation and ending many of the restrictions that have burdened the provision of legal services to so many American citizens," said Leahy. "Lawyers across the United States have dedicated their lives to helping the least fortunate among us gain access to the courts that serve us all. These lawyers play a critical role in ensuring that justice is carried out in a manner consistent with the Constitution's promise, and when justice is served fairly, it benefits us all."