by Ray Marshall
There is an overwhelming need for a federal legal services program. Funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was cut by more than one-third in 1996. Yet the need for legal services for poor Americans has never been greater.
It is well documented that more than 75 to 80 per cent of the civil legal needs of the poor are not being met. In America today, there are more than 40 million people, mostly children, living in poverty.
In 1995, more than 5 million people were served by a local legal services program. In the following year, a million poor Americans were turned away due to cuts in federal funding.
Local legal services programs are separate non-profit organizations run by local independent boards of directors, and many of them rely on LSC funding. These local programs make a real difference in the lives of millions of poor Californians by helping them resolve family law issues such as child support, benefits cases such as wrongfully denied social security and veterans’ benefits, employment matters such as establishing safety standards for persons in dangerous jobs, and keeping families together by preventing illegal foreclosures of family-run farms.
For millions of poor Americans, LSC is the means by which they can resolve disputes and obtain justice. LSC is fundamentally a conservative program — one which facilitates the peaceful resolution of disputes and reinforces respect for the rule of law.
A nation where so many are denied a real chance to enforce their constitutional rights is a nation weakened by inequality and doomed to never reach its full potential.
In 1995, a strong bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate voted 60-39 to preserve the national LSC program and not replace it with a block grant program.
In 1996, the House voted by a wide bipartisan margin to preserve the national program rather than cut its funds by half.
And for 1998, Congress is still in the process of finalizing the appropriation.
A very strong bipartisan majority understands the value of this program. They understand the principle of equal justice.
A vocal minority must not be allowed to reverse a long-standing, sound public policy supporting equal access for the poor to our nation’s courts.
At the state level, we are doing everything we can to try to replace the lost federal funding and to improve access to our judicial system.
The new Access to Justice Commission brings together lawyers, judges, business, labor, religious, political and other civic leaders to plan and develop significant improvements to our system of legal services for the poor and moderate income Californians.
And new State Bar President Marc Adelman has called on lawyers across the state to fulfill their ethical obligations by providing legal assistance to thousands of children at risk.
As this year’s chair of the board committee on communications, bar and legal policy, I look forward to working with many of you to try to find solutions to the lack of access faced by millions of Californians — a lack of access that undermines the very system of justice we are committed to defending.
Ray Marshall, a San Francisco attorney, is vice president of the bar board of governors and member of the Bar Journal editorial advisory board.