Legal Aid Demand Outpaces Program Growth, Providers Say
Service providers reflect on funding woes and the evolution of practices.
Federal support for legal aid drew some opposition. In 1970, California's then-Gov. Ronald Reagan tried to block funding to California Rural Legal Assistance, which had successfully challenged state policies affecting poor residents. The California fight and similar controversies in other states led to the creation of the Legal Services Corp., an office independent of the executive branch.
The LSC has faced its own share of controversy. Critics have pointed to cases of fraud among grantees and accused the office of mismanagement. Conservatives in Congress and the White House routinely pushed to cut support, citing concerns that grantees were pushing liberal agendas through class actions.
In 1980, LSC funding made up approximately 88 percent of the revenue of its grantees, according to president James Sandman. The average today is 39 percent, although that varies significantly in some states. In 1996, when Congress passed major cuts to the LSC's budget, the office supported more than 300 programs. In 2012, there were 135 grantees.
The 1996 cuts spurred legal aid organizations to find ways to diversify their funding sources. By the 1990s, almost all states had adopted Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts programs to generate money for legal aid. Providers say that source became less stable after 2008, when bank interest rates plummeted.
Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine, said applying for grants and fundraising have become much bigger parts of her job. Her organization has the capacity to serve approximately 15 percent of eligible clients in a meaningful way, not including advice from a nonlawyer, she said.
"We have the challenge of helping those foundations understand why legal work matters to people with food insecurity and people who are homeless," Heald said. "That's not always an easy argument to present to someone who hasn't thought about it that way before."
Meanwhile, the practice of poverty law has become more complex since the 1960s. Besides the traditional areas of family law, housing, consumer protection and public benefits, demand for services grew in areas including immigration law, education and health care.
Legal services lawyers say they've grown more efficient and developed programs to provide assistance to people they don't have the resources to represent. In Ohio, Community Legal Aid Services runs clinics on how to respond to a credit-card collection lawsuit. Executive director Sara Strattan said her organization, which turns away more than 60 percent of people applying for services, is developing similar programs for other types of cases.
The Texas Legal Services Center is one of a number of organizations to embrace the Internet, providing web-based tools for unrepresented litigants to use to put together court papers. Executive director Randall Chapman said his group also worked with the courts to expand self-help centers. Courts across the country, Chapman said, increasingly are taking the lead on access to justice. State high court justices "are hearing the message from local trial judges," he said.
There's a push in some state legislatures to adopt a civil right to counsel, similar to criminal cases. Civil right-to-counsel pilot programs have taken place in a handful of states. Still, proponents said, the lack of funds and uncertainty about defining such a right would likely slow progress.
"The principle of equal justice I think is vitally important," Bouman said. "There is definitely a role for government in ensuring it, and, in fact, should be doing a much better job of it."