Legal-Ease?

LEGAL SERVICES

"Paoverty creates an abrasive interface with society: poor people are always bumping into sharp legal things." Stephen Wesler, Yale Law Journal, 1970

THE LAW jostles and hurts people who need but cannot get welfare, underpaid laborers, old or disabled people on fixed incomes. They do not lead settled lives but are constantly involved in the law in its most intrusive forms they go to government officials for many of the things others get privately; they get evicted; they have their furniture repossessed; they can't pay their utility bills.

Were it not for the combined efforts of legal services agencies, law school legal and programs, and volunteers in the private bar, many of these people would have no access to legal services and consequently no opportunity to redress their wrongs through the legal system. The Reagan Administration--in its cut-and-gut approach to public assistance programs--has cut back funding for legal services. These cutbacks are already having drastic effects on legal services, and will have drastic effects on the poor community.

Until the early 1960s, the only form of legal assistance available to the poor was provided through an informal network of private legal aid societies supported by charities or city funding, and on occasion by the vounteer efforts of private lawyers. Then in 1962, Lyndon Johnson launched the "War on Poverty," which created a federal Legal Services Program under the auspices of the Office for Economic Opportunity (OEO). Over the next decade, however, that program fell out of the Administration's good grace: Vice President Spiro Agnew labelled its lawyers "ideological vigilantes, and many officials in the federal government saw the program as a prime example of the "War on Poverty's" misplaced energies.

The private bar and other supporters of the program began a combined effort in the early '70s to extricate legal services from the politics of the OEO and lodge it in a separate non-profit corporation which could administer congressionally appropriated funds. In 1974 the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) opened shop.

Legal services flourished under the LSC for nearly a decade. By 1980, the Corporation's budget had reached $321 million; and in 1979 it closed more than one million cases. But it now appears that even the LSC has been unable to extricate legal services from the politics of federal government. The Reagan Administration has tried repeatedly, without success, to persuade Congress to cut off funds for the Corporation. In 1981, Congress agreed to reduce the program's annual budget to $241 million, where it has remained despite the increasing demand for legal assistance.

According to a nationwide survey of the LSC's field offices, these budget cuts have seriously diminished the legal resources available to the poor community. By 1983 the number of lawyers in LSC offices had already decreased by 30 percent, with many programs losing their most experienced lawyers; the number of paralegals also decreased by 25 percent, while the number of poor people eligible for assistance increased by 15 percent. Virtually all of the offices surveyed were turning away eligible clients because of large caseloads. In addition, other clients were being put on long waiting lists and may never receive help.

Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the local chapter of the Legal Services Corporation, has felt the full effect of the Reagan cuts. Funded by Congress through LSC, by United Way and by local law firms, GBLS provides free legal assistance in cases that involve domestic relations, consumer law, landlord/tenant disputes, and government benefits. According to Sally Dunnan, director of personal, GBLS's budget has been slashed by 25 percent. As a result, it has had to reduce its staff by nearly one half.

"We have been losing some really good attorneys and support staff," says Harvey Shapiro, a GBLS staff lawyer. Although the program receives financial support from private sources, that support has not been able to make up for the losses in federal funding. "They have certainly stepped up efforts to obtain private funding, but that hasn't eliminated the need to cut back," according to Carol Wagan, a staff lawyer at the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center who works closely with GBLS.

JUST AS resources have diminished, so too has morale among both clients and lawyers. "If you want to describe Legal Services now," adds Shapiro, "It's tremendous morale problems." Some clients are angry because their cases are simply not being handled. "It's not like you can call them up and talk to a lawyer," says a woman from East Boston. "You've got to wait for an appointment and by the time you get one it's probably too late. They just don't have the time" Staff lawyers, on the other hand, feel as if they are working in a "sustained bunker atmosphere." For while the demand for their services increases daily, so does the general feeling of uncertainty concerning the program's future. As Wagan says, "The morale problems come from the sense that there is less security in Legal Services."

Funding cutbacks have resulted in the development of new programs in order to increase the poor community's access to legal services The Legal Advocacy and Resource Center (LARC), a privately funded organization which provides legal information and referrals to low income groups in the Boston area, was conceived as a direct response to the cutbacks According to Wagan, the Massachusetts Legal Reform Institute conducted a study on ways in which legal services could be improved in the city. "One of the things they decided was that there should be an agency that could provide information about the various resources available in the area. It was based on the idea that we could use volunteers as a way to help make up for the diminishing resources."

The role of the private bar has also increased as a result of the funding cutbacks, with many programs recruiting more lawyers in private practice to take on cases for free. In 1977 there were only a handful of such programs across the country; now there are over a 150. Critics of the Legal Services Corporation have said that most poverty law work could be done free or at reduced rate by the private bar. But LSC program directors report that less than half the clients they turn away are able to get help from attorneys in private practice.

Vicki Young, a member of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, agrees. "There was a report issued in Washington on Legal Services--I think David Stockman wrote it--and basically what he said was, 'Well, gee, don't you think we can let the bar take care of the problem and get rid of all these expensive legal services programs? Of course that's blatantly impossible. Even if the bar could handle the demand, who would link up the indigent community and the lawyers? Besides, most of the lawyers in private practice don't have the expertise necessary to handle the legal problems which poor people have. That's why we're here: we lawyers to deal with these problems.

While many at LARC and VLP feel that volunteer efforts in legal services have been successful, they nevertheless agree that the federal government must commit itself to the support of legal assistance programs if the poor community is to receive the services it needs. "Legal Services can't do it alone, and neither can the private bar," says Young. "There's get to be an organized system where the programs and the bar can work together."

If that system is going to work, the Administration will have to show the kind of commitment already shown by legal services workers. "Why should I go to law school? asks a LARC staff member. "It would cost me a bundle in student loans, and then I'd just have to go work for some corporate law firm to pay them back. It would be like selling my soul. And I'd rather stay right here."