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Legal aid groups struggle to meet low-income need

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

Legal aid representatives described to the Senate yesterday their struggle to represent low-income Americans as a housing crisis and slow economy leave a growing number of people with more legal problems than they can handle.

At least half of the eligible applicants to nonprofit organizations such as Legal Aid Bureau get turned away because the nonprofits lack funding, according to Legal Services Corp., the agency that gives federal grants to legal assistance groups.

Typically, the applicants seek legal representation to avoid foreclosure, get help for a disabled family member or find protection from an abusive relationship, according to witnesses at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

"Because we are unable to assist them, they have nowhere else to go," said Helaine M. Barnett, president of the Washington-based Legal Services Corp.

Recent wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes have added to the number of people who need lawyers to represent them, the group says.

Congress is giving Legal Services Corp. $350 million in the current fiscal year, but the agency is asking for $471 million for fiscal 2009.

The presidents of the 50 state bar associations recently wrote a letter to congressional leaders asking for increased funding, saying the annual appropriation for Legal Services Corp. has not kept pace with inflation since the 1990s.

Subprime mortgages have led to widespread foreclosures among low-income Americans, they said.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, suggested that state bar associations take a more active role in offering free legal service to low-income people, possibly with a requirement that licensed attorneys provide the service.

Legal Services Corp. is asking for more money while it still is trying to clear its reputation after recent government reports accused its board of directors of failing to maintain professional accountability standards.

A government report in March indicated Legal Services Corp. might not be using its funding effectively.

Some agencies that received grants used the money to give staff members interest-free loans, to pay late fees on overdue bills and to pay lobbyist registration charges, according to a Legal Services Corp. inspector general's report. It accused Legal Services Corp. of failing to monitor grantee agencies appropriately.

A Government Accountability Office report in December said the agency's "governance and accountability breakdowns can result in a lack of trust from donors, grantors and appropriators, which could ultimately put funding ... at risk."

Legal Services Corp. officials said they have reformed their oversight procedures by approving a new code of ethics for agencies receiving grants and establishing a separate audit committee.

Concerns about whether more federally subsidized lawsuits by low-income people are the best method of representing their interests were raised during the Senate hearing by Kenneth F. Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative public policy foundation.

Mediation without lawyers and charitable assistance from private law firms could be better options, he said.

"The alternatives generally are faster, they're more effective," Mr. Boehm said.