Restrictions Undercut Legal Aid Fund for the Poor
NEW YORK, 30 Mar
For the past 14 years, the non-profit company set up by the U.S. Congress to provide legal services for the poor has been forced to short-change the needy because of severe government restrictions on how it can use its funding, critics charge.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has been attempting to operate with large chunks of its potential activity foreclosed. It has been unable to help with both programmes that receive government funds and even those that use non-federal funds raised by legal services programmes.
Since their passage, these restrictions have been plagued by free speech questions and have sparked calls for change, says the watchdog group OMB Watch. (OMB stands for the government's powerful Office of Management and Budget.)
Lee Mason, director of Nonprofit Speech Rights at the Washington-based advocacy group, told IPS, "The restrictions on the use of non-federal funds of the Legal Services Corporation amount to an all-out attack on the constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment rights of millions of citizens of America."
LSC is tasked with ensuring equal access to justice by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. It was created in 1974 and is funded through the congressional appropriations process.
OMB Watch says the origin of the funding restrictions was a concerted effort by right-wing interests to deny low-income people access to the courts by destroying LSC.
In "Mandate for Leadership," the agenda published on the eve of President Ronald Reagan's first term in 1981, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for LSC's wholesale destruction. Barring its complete demise, Heritage argued for steep budget cuts and the imposition of broad restrictions through LSC appropriations riders.
According to state bar associations, court-established Access to Justice Commissions, and state legal services planning bodies, the funding restrictions have had disastrous consequences for poor people who need legal services.
The LSC Act specifically prohibits organisations receiving LSC funding from using LSC - or private funds - to engage in most criminal cases; organising activities, including training for or encouraging of political or labour activities; litigation to receive "non-therapeutic abortions" or "compel the provision of abortion services over religious or moral objections"; and "proceedings involving desegregation of public schools, military service or assisted suicide."
Additional funding restrictions have been added over the years. In 1996, Congress expanded the LSC restrictions to apply to funds from all sources, including federal, state, local, and private funds, with the exception of tribal funds.
It also prohibited additional activities, including class actions; all abortion-related litigation; representing prisoners; representing people who are being evicted from public housing for allegedly distributing illegal drugs; redistricting activities; lobbying governmental bodies, with limited exceptions; and representing non-U.S. citizens, with limited exceptions.
Current LSC rules also require legal aid programmes that wish to lobby, spend private dollars on class action lawsuits, comment on proposed regulations, or represent certain types of clients, such as prisoners or certain immigrants, to set up physically separate offices with separate staff.
Legislative efforts to overturn the LSC funding restrictions have increased in the past year.
In March 2009, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 that would end the restrictions on the use of non-federal funds by LSC grantees, except those related to abortion litigation and a few other activities.
"Lifting these restrictions allows individual states, cities and donors the ability to determine themselves how best to spend non-federal funds to ensure access to the courts," said Harkin.
Public sentiment also appears to be on the side of providing legal access to those in need.
OMB Watch charges that, "Since the Reagan administration, conservatives have sounded a drumbeat of opposition directed at the LSC. The Reagan budgets annually proposed elimination of legal services, only to have those services protected by Congress. Over the years, LSC funding has limped along. However, with the recent economic downturn, there has been a noticeable uptick in support for legal services."
"According to the Associated Press, two-thirds of those polled in 2009 on behalf of the American Bar Association said they favour federal funding for people who need legal assistance," the group says. "Notably, Congress increased funding for the LSC in the last appropriations cycle."
For 2007, LSC had a budget of some 350 million dollars. This year it has asked Congress to provide 516.5 million dollars, with more than 95 percent of the budget request going to fund 136 nonprofit legal aid programmes across the nation that provide civil legal assistance to the nation's poor.