Civil Legal Services

  • 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.

  • August 10, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    The House Appropriations Committee recently proposed a 26-percent cut to the Legal Services Corporation that would “cut to the bone” funding for civil legal aid for the indigent at a time when demand for those services is increasing.

    But this proposal isn’t enough for one Tea Party member of Congress, who introduced a bill last week to abolish the Legal Services Corporation entirely.

    The bill, the first introduced by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) since he joined the Congress, came just three days after news broke that workers represented by legal services attorneys won a case before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a corporation in Scott’s district.

    The coincidental timing of the bill did not go unnoticed by The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who calls the proposal a “transparent attempt” to defend a company in his district at the expense of a program that both Democrats and many Republicans agree is needed.

    Milbank notes that the facts of this case do not jibe with Scott’s Tea Party affiliation and anti-immigration messaging, because the EEOC found that the company had illegally fired U.S. workers in favor of Mexican workers with H-2A visas.

    “In a broader sense, Scott’s bill gets at what has long troubled me about the Tea Party movement: It is fueled by populist anger, but it has been hijacked by plutocrats,” Milbank writes. “… They rally for tougher immigration laws, but then their guy in Washington helps corporations to fire U.S. workers and hire foreign nationals.”

  • August 8, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As an increasing number of economists suggests the nation’s wobbly economy may yet be heading into another recession, the effects of the Great Recession continue to do great damage to government funding of legal services.

    The cuts to such services are coming at a time when an increasing number of people need them, whether they are homeowners trying to cope with foreclosure, renters struggling to deal with evictions, or workers fighting employment discrimination.  

    On the federal level, the House Appropriations Committee is pushing for a 26 percent cut in funding to Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s largest provider of funding for civil legal services for low-income people. Cuts to LSC funding made by Congress in spring, along with cuts at the state level, have further hampered the ability of organizations to help low-income people access justice.   

    For example, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) has announced that it “would close three of its branch offices and significantly reduce staff and services around the State due to severe funding cuts," the Xpress Mountain of Asheville and Western North Carolina reports. The shuttering of offices will affect more than “100,000 households – including more than 30,000 children,” who are eligible for the services.

    Celeste Harris, chair of the LANC board of directors, told the Xpress Mountain:

    New Jersey has also seen major slashes to its legal aid services. “From 2008 to 2010, Legal Services of New Jersey has seen its budget cut by 35 percent, from $72 million to $47 million, and lost nearly half of its staff attorneys as a result. In the 2011 budget, funding was slashed by another third; the 2012 budget signed by the governor included the additional $10 million cut,” Shore News Today reports.

    The article notes that some lawmakers in the New Jersey Assembly are urging the governor to reconsider the $10 million cut.

    State Sen. Jeff Van Drew said, “I’ve always been fiscally conservative, but without this funding there will be deeper cuts to an overburdened system. People cannot have their day in court on issues that affect their everyday lives without access to representation.”   

    During a recent event hosted by ACS and the Center for American Progress on the growing need for legal services, ACS Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson noted that even at the current legal aid services funding rates, more than 80 percent of low-income Americans have no access to legal assistance.

    “Sadly this crisis has been made only worse by the unemployment rate in this country and foreclosure problem,” Fredrickson said. “And at $284 per hour, which is the national average billing rate for attorneys, it is no surprise that many are priced out of access to justice.”

    In a recent ACS Book Talk feature, Corey Shdaimah, a law professor at the University of Maryland, asks, “If we can shore up corporations and financial institutions, why can’t we shore up people, communities, and their faith in our legal system? In the U.S., access to justice without lawyers is largely a hollow promise.”