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Cambridge Legal Aid Office Leads Search for Law Reform

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Members of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association voted last week to shift the focus of their work to cases designed to benefit large numbers of poor people rather than individual clients alone.

Such cases, commonly termed "law reform" cases, primarily include test cases and those involving groups of poor people, such as tenants suing a landlord.

Cambridge's Community Legal Assistance Office (CLAO) has been relatively active in the area of law reform since its founding, said former director John M. Ferron '59, lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and now chairman of the faculty committee concerned with the office.

CLAO is jointly supported by the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Law School.

Ferren attributes CLAO's ability to spend so much time on law reform to the fact that the office has over 100 Harvard law students assisting it. Nationally, concern with law reform may mean that legal aid offices will have to begin turning away individuals seeking counsel.

CLAO has not found it necessary to turn anyone away, however, because of its large staff. Yet, while CLAO once served neighboring towns as Somerville and Malden, it now only accepts cases from Cambridge residents.

Law reform cases actually comprise a very small number of CLAO's total case-work. But because these few cases require a much greater amount of time than the average civil case, they form a much larger part of the office's workload than their numbers would suggest.

The Office of Economic Opportunity has been urging the many legal aid offices it supports to devote more time to law reform for several years. It feels legal aid resources can benefit the poor the most in this way. Earren commented.

One legal aid lawyer. Alfred Feinberg, echoed this view recently when he told the New York Times. "Case-by-case legal aid is only a Band-Aid. The truly important cases not only seek to win for individual clients but also to change the law for all persons similarly situated."

Traditionally, cases involving domestic matters, such as divorce, adoption, and child support, have formed the greatest part of legal aid work. Such cases make up around 40 per cent of CLAO's caseload, it is particularly cases such as these which may be phased out nationally as greater emphasis is given to law reform cases.

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