Posted on Monday, October 18, 2010
Across the country, programs that provide legal representation in civil cases to low-income Americans are so cash-strapped that they are turning away numbers of people. Hard-pressed Americans fighting foreclosure or seeking protection from domestic violence or access to medical care or unemployment benefits must often navigate the judicial system on their own or give up.
For much of its financing, civil legal aid has relied on the interest earnings from escrow accounts that private lawyers often hold for clients. That has all but disappeared as interest rates have dropped. At the same time, deficit-plagued statehouses are cutting support, while federal dollars are not taking up enough of the slack.
The chief judge of New York State’s highest court, Jonathan Lippman, has begun a campaign for expanded state support. At recent public meetings, business, political, and bar leaders, judges and litigants described the high cost, to all New Yorkers, of denying such assistance to the poor.
Beyond basic moral and ethical concerns, they argued, the rising volume of self-represented litigants is causing court delays that impose financial burdens on opposing parties with lawyers. Foreclosures that might be avoided drive families into shelters, further straining local budgets and disrupting lives. Hospitals operating at the financial brink are hurt when poor people can’t obtain Medicaid payments for their treatment.
A special commission named by Judge Lippman is readying a report that will assess the unmet needs for civil legal services and suggest cost-effective steps to meet them. Even in hard times, progress should be possible. New York’s State Legislature already has approved a measure that would allow borrowers who prevail against banks in foreclosure actions to recover their attorneys’ fees. Gov. David Paterson needs to sign it.
After the election recess, Congress must approve the extra financing to provide legal services for struggling homeowners authorized in the financial reform law. It must also approve a substantial budget increase for the federal Legal Services Corporation, which helps finance these critical programs, and ditch senseless restrictions hampering its mission. NYT