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."