Legal Aid Demand Outpaces Program Growth, Providers Say
Service providers reflect on funding woes and the evolution of practices.
When President Lyndon Johnson declared a national "war on poverty" in his Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union speech, he pledged the fight would be won "in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House." For lawyers who represented the poor, Johnson's recognition of their role in the fight against poverty — and the infusion of federal dollars that followed — brought about a fundamental change.
"Nobody had ever seen a lawyer for a poor person back then," said Phyllis Holmen, executive director of the Georgia Legal Services Program. "The judges were surprised, the lawyers on the other side were surprised. … Clients were thrilled."
Legal aid existed before 1964, but was mostly limited to large cities. Today, legal services lawyers serve clients living below the federal poverty line in rural, suburban and urban areas across the country.
But legal services lawyers warn the expansion of legal aid during the past 50 years has failed to keep pace with demand. Despite efforts by legal aid programs to diversify their sources of revenue, cuts in federal and state dollars — historically the main sources of legal aid funding — forced providers to lay off attorneys and staff and close offices.
"There is just much more need now than there was then," said Holmen, whose organization has 10 offices, down from more than 20 during the past 15 years. "We turn away half the people who contact us. But there are lots and lots of people out there who don't know how to reach us."
The Legal Services Corp. (LSC), the largest single source of legal aid funding nationwide, cites state-level studies showing fewer than one-fifth of low-income individuals with legal problems get assistance from a lawyer. Providers also reported a surge in demand since the 2007 recession.
"A lot of people are poor who have never been poor before," said Don Saunders, vice president for civil legal services at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. "People losing their homes — they never have imagined themselves in need of a legal aid lawyer."
Lawyers say the funding picture is bleak, but point to a few bright spots, such as the growing availability of grants from private foundations and support from the courts. Congress on Jan. 16 passed a fiscal year 2014 spending bill restoring $25 million cut from the LSC's budget last year. Advocates say that, despite setbacks, the War on Poverty succeeded in vastly expanding access to justice.
"There are many, many people getting good representation across the whole country," said John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
The War on Poverty institutionalized legal services, said Jose Padilla, executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. "Before the War on Poverty, providing legal aid to poor people was charitable," he said. Today, there's "an expectation that a society will make its legal system available to everybody."
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."
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.