Battling for legal services

Staff Writer

The battle to retain legal services programs continues nationally, with California organizations and attorneys fighting to protect the state from an anticipated 38 percent cut in funding.

Although it is expected that the Legal Services Corporation will be funded through the end of the current fiscal year as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill (HR 3019), the funding squeeze has been felt throughout the state.

"Local programs have already had to lay off nearly 150 lawyers and paralegals," said Jim Towery, State Bar president. "Poor people across the state will have nowhere else to turn."

Rising odds

According to a report issued by the Public Interest Clearinghouse in 1991, there was one attorney for every 5,863 poor people in California.

This year, said Mary C. Viviano, director of the bar's Office of Legal Services, it is estimated that there is one attorney for every 11,423. Viviano considers that estimate conservative and said it will fluctuate depending on the final outcome of LSC funding.

Viviano added that the number of legal services lawyers in California decreased about 20 percent from 1980 to 1990.

The current House version of the omnibus bill includes $278 million for LSC, which represents a 33 percent drop from last year. The Senate version allots $300 million.

Both versions include nearly all of the restrictions reported in recent months, including a ban on class actions and welfare reform litigation, a ban on legislative advocacy, extension of LSC restrictions to all other funds of a program and many other prohibitions.

Congress was adamant about restricting lobbying, and earlier bills would have prohibited legal services attorneys from even responding to a request for information about pending bills that affect poor people.

The only amendment which was accepted by the Senate and has yet to be approved by the House would allow programs to use non-LSC funds to respond to such written requests from legislators.

In December, President Cinton vetoed HR 2076, the appropriations bill which included legal services funding. In his veto message, Clinton called for more money and fewer restrictions for legal services programs.

Since October, the LSC has been included in continuing resolutions, but with 33 percent less funding than last year.

Big cut for California

Due in part to the cut in funds for support centers and elimination of a national line item for migrant programs, California takes a disproportionately higher percentage of the cuts -- 38 percent.

Representatives of Californians for Legal Aid (CLA) expect the 1997 budget and appropriations process to focus on whether a federally mandated legal services program should exist.

For more information, contact the CLA, c/o Public Interest Clearinghouse, 100 McAllister St., San Francisco 94102, 415/255-1714, ext. 304.