Federally funded legal services lawyers for poor people have been operating with one hand tied behind their back since Newt Gingrich and his brand of Republicans took control of Congress in the mid-1990s. Now that we have a Democratic president and Congress, it is time to roll back the restrictions that federal money brings–constraints that lawyers for paying clients do not encounter. In his detailed budget request for the coming year, President Obama proposes to repeal the most onerous of the strictures–a welcome step. Congress is currently considering the president’s proposals, and should enact them into law.
Legal services lawyers help low-income people stave off eviction, resist predatory lenders, protect themselves from domestic violence, obtain public benefits and deal with family issues. Federal funding was first provided as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and is distributed by the federally chartered Legal Services Corporation. Well over half the full-time lawyers for the poor work for organizations that receive federal money, so the limits on what they can do have a serious impact on a field that is already greatly understaffed.
The impulse to regulate lawyers for the poor is of course not unrelated to our proclivity to regulate the poor in other ways, especially those poor people we deem undeserving. Various interests began trying to curb legal services for poor people from the moment federal funding was first provided. Agribusiness and other businesses that made money on the backs of the poor, as well as some public officials, thought it was outrageous that taxpayer money could finance lawsuits to make them obey the law as it related to poor people.
Even so, major limitations on federally supported legal services activities were not adopted until the Gingrich revolution, although funding was cut severely by President Reagan (and again during the Gingrich era). Advocacy by the American Bar Association and bipartisan efforts by members of Congress, especially lawyers, kept the program largely free from such limits for a surprisingly long time.
Perhaps the best-known restriction is the ban on class-action suits. Another that has had a big impact is the bar on reimbursement of attorneys’ fees in cases where federal or state law lets every other successful litigant collect them (civil rights suits are a prime example). But the list is quite long. Others apply to specific client groups and categories of cases and activities–prison inmates, abortion cases, undocumented and many legal immigrants, redistricting cases and legislative and administrative advocacy generally. The most damaging, though, is the one that makes all the restrictions apply to money the legal services organization receives from sources other than the federal government.
President Obama’s proposal calls for repeal of what are perhaps the most damaging federal-funding restrictions: those that apply to other sources of funding; the bar on attorneys’ fees, which reduces the already parched supply of lawyers for the poor; and the ban on class actions. If enacted, the repeal would constitute a welcome boost to low-income people’s access to justice.