Legal services

  • November 18, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Earlier this week Congress agreed on a drastic cut of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s largest provider of civil legal help for low-income people.

    As noted at Daily Kos, the LSC, which helps an ever-growing pool of people, “has fallen under the chopping block of Congress.”

    CLASP, a public advocacy group for the nation’s poor, in a press statement says the House and Senate conferees agreed earlier this week to a nearly 14 percent cut. “The agreement reduced funding for LSC in 2012 to $348 million from $404.19 million in 2011. The last time LSC was funded at $348 million was in 2007,” a statement from CLASP reads.

    The draconian cut comes, of course, as more people are now living in poverty, and much of the nation continues to struggle from aftershocks of the Great Recession. Earlier this year, Daily Kos’ Adam Bonin, an attorney in Philadelphia and former ACS Lawyer Chapter leader, wrote that the proposed cut to LSC funding “would prove to be especially damaging to low-income persons whose health and safety are at risk – the elderly, the victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans, and others – by denying them access to justice.”

    Following the agreement to cut funding, LSC Board Chair John G. Levi said, “The nation’s poverty population has never been this large, and, as a consequence, requests for civil legal assistance are increasing.” And unless Congress would agree to “restore and enhance” LSC funding, services to low-income persons will dwindle.

    “Many LSC-funded programs,” Levi said, “will have no choice but to lay off staff and reduce the legal assistance they provide low-income Americans.”

  • October 18, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Brooke Lierman, an attorney at the civil rights firm, Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore, Md. Ms. Lierman is on the Executive Committee of the Maryland Lawyer Chapter of ACS.

    The White House recently added to its growing list of Champions of Change, a group of 16 individuals working, in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, “to address and to overcome our most pressing legal challenges and to live up to our nation’s highest ideals.” 

    The event, last week, was the latest in a series sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE), which seeks (in the words of the Office’s director Jon Carson) to shine a spotlight on the good work that Americans are doing every day in their communities.

    This event was organized jointly by OPE and the Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, an office created by Attorney General Holder (pictured) to ensure that basic legal services are available and accessible to everyone in the country.  

    Attorney General Holder offered some prepared remarks discussing the important work that the honorees perform in their communities.  The 16 individuals, listed below, represented all spheres of the legal community – from professors to directors of legal services programs to general counsel of a major corporation. The White House and Department of Justice honored them and invited them to participate in roundtable discussions about the challenges facing today’s legal system. 

  • September 27, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel to achieve smart criminal justice reform in states across the country. She has published scholarship on the use of economic analysis to promote laws advancing social welfare.

    Yesterday’s New York Times article highlighting the coercive practice of plea bargaining is not news to advocates of criminal justice reform. Over the last three decades, this country’s excessively long sentencing schemes, inflexible mandatory minimum laws, and arbitrary three-strikes-you’re-out legislation have created a “justice” system in which prosecutors wield ridiculous amounts of leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants. NYU’s Rachel Barkow sums it up best: “When you have that attitude you penalize people who have the nerve to go to trial.” Almost 100 percent of federal defendants plead guilty.

    Our criminal justice system has made a farce of our constitutional rights to a fair trial before our peers, to effective representation by legal counsel, and to equal protection under the law. In a misguided attempt to be "tough on crime," the United States has chosen the irrational tactic of pouring billions of dollars into building more prisons and jails (and arresting and prosecuting more low-level and nonviolent offenses) while cutting back services to help people stay out of them. We increasingly throw people into the system for absurdly petty crimes, incarcerate people presumed innocent even before they have their day in court (often for months or years before trial), provide them with subpar defense resources, ensure that they remain imprisoned in humiliating and inhumane conditions for excessively long periods of time, and then release them with nothing more than the shirts on their backs and criminal records.

    All these practices, among others, have led us to become the largest incarcerator in the world.

  • August 24, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers in Congress continue to be far more interested in protecting generous tax breaks for the nation’s wealthy at the expense of a much larger segment of the public, such as those in need of legal services.

    As The New Times’ editorial page notes in “Addressing the Justice Gap,” since the Great Recession an increasing number of people are representing themselves in civil proceedings, such as home foreclosures and landlord-tenant disputes, and research “shows that litigants representing themselves often fare less well than those with lawyers.”

    The editorial notes, however, that instead of doing more to assist the nation’s less fortunate, the government has taken a different, and devastating approach by slashing funding for legal services over the decades, and efforts are underway in Congress to cut even more. As noted here, a House committee has proposed a 26 percent cut in funding to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the national agency that distributes money to states for their service programs, and cuts to LSC are already being felt across the nation, with local legal services groups suffering. For Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), cutting LSC services is not enough, he wants the entire agency shuttered.

    But, The Times’ editorial states, the situation need not be so dire:

    There is plenty the government, the legal profession and others can do to improve this shameful state of affairs. With the economic downturn, only around two-thirds of law school graduates in 2010 got jobs for which a law degree is required, the lowest rate since 1996. That leaves the other third – close to 15,000 lawyers – who, with financial support from government and the legal profession, could be using their legal expertise to help some of those who need representation.

    ACS and the Center for American Progress hosted an event earlier this year examining the nation’s growing justice gap and ways to address it. Video of that event is available here.

  • August 18, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Slashed funding for state courts around the country is crippling our justice system, a New York Times editorial published today warns.

    Citing a new report by an American Bar Association task force, “Crisis in the Courts: Defining the Problem,” the editorial notes that the recession has led to layoffs of judges, law clerks and other court staff at a time when the courts have been “flooded with thousands of new foreclosures, credit card cases and other lawsuits driven by economic hardship.”

    “The report rightly says that ‘even the most eloquent constitution is worthless with no one to enforce it,’” the editorial states.

    Earlier this month, The Huffington Post published an lengthy article on how cuts to state courts, cuts to legal services and unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominees are all severely limiting individuals’ access to justice.