Lawyers must lead funding fight


Access to legal services for the poor in this country has reached a crisis level. Despite limited success in maintaining 62 percent of California's share of federal legal services funding last year, it is clear that future funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is even more in doubt.

In an attempt to address long-term legal services issues, the Board of Governors Committee on Legal Services will release its "Access to Justice" report this month, outlining 13 recommendations to provide equal legal representation for all California residents.

Those recommendations include:

In addition, lawyers will be asked to increase the more than 1 million pro bono hours they already contribute each year in California.

The California Judicial Council already has indicated that judges are willing to work with lawyers to lead the effort to increase access to justice.

One of the many startling findings of the report is that when asked whether poor people in this country have a right to free counsel in civil cases, 70 percent of Californians and 75 percent of Americans responded, "Yes, they do."

Not only is this belief mistaken, even limited availability of free counsel is now in doubt.

Sadly, the report also shows that nearly all of the European democracies spend more on legal services to civil indigents than the United States, with England spending 10 times more per capita than California in 1990, before the current legal services cutbacks.

Californians pay about $16 billion a year in private fees for lawyers, primarily in civil matters. Before recent cuts of around $16 million, all private and public civil legal services funding totaled about $100 million.

To match the average commitment of the European democracies, California would have to increase its expenditures approximately $260 million per year for counsel in civil litigation.

While no one would claim that there is no difference between criminal prosecution and civil litigation, the importance of civil courts in areas such as child custody, eviction, civil harassment and consumer rights cannot be ignored.

"Equal justice under law" is a principle not confined to the criminal courts. The right to counsel in civil cases cannot be so confined, either.

The Access to Justice report also reveals that government expenditures in California to provide poor people with counsel total only six-tenths of 1 percent of California's total expenditures for lawyers in civil cases and only 6 percent of the entire state judiciary budget.

We can and must do better if we are to make access to justice a reality.

Lawyers, individually, professionally and as leaders in our society, have a worthy but audacious goal ahead of us.

That goal was well-stated in the Magna Carta in 1215: "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice."

Joseph J. Bell is a Grass Valley attorney and chairs the Board of Governors Committee on Legal Services.