Why legal aid for poor is target for Reagan budget ax

One of the strongest survivors of the "Great Society" -- legal aid for the poor -- is headed for swift and jarring change. President Reagan wants to abolish the Legal Services Corporation and abruptly halt its funding of local programs that help the poor with civil problems. If states and localities want to continue such programs, he says, they will have to fund them out of the new block grants that are to be reduced 25 percent.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee already has voted to cut the corporation's funding by two-thirds, and from debate begun in the House of Representatives this week, it is clear that congress will have a very difficult time overruling the President. Even if the agency survives, Mr. Reagan will have the opportunity to appoint all 11 members of its board before the end of the summer.

Much more than federal spending is involved ($321 million this year), for the debate centers on questions that are philosophical rather than fiscal.

President Reagan and his supporters agree with advocates of the poor that all Americans deserve adequate legal defense in criminal matters, even if the government has to pay for it. But they draw the line at civil cases (enforcement of contracts, for example), especially those in which individuals sue public agencies. Why should the government (i.e., taxpayers) pay someone to challenge itself, they ask?

Most of the work done by the 1,400 local offices funded by the Legal Services Corporation involves disputes over family and housing matters, income maintenance, and consumer finance. some 1.5 million poor Americans are helped this way each year, the vast majority without actually having to go to court.

But in the years since the corporation grew out of the former Office of Economic Opportunity and Community Services Administration, its squad of generally younger, low-paid, and activist "poverty lawyers" has made waves that have soaked the feet of just about every segment of the "establishment."

They have successfully sued, not only landlords and other local businesses, but many departments and agencies of state and local government. They have forced officials to pay welfare benefits, provide abortions for poor women, improve jail conditions, educate the children of illegal aliens, and enforce labor laws, winning nearly 85 percent of such cases.

Even more grating to their legal opponents and political critics, they have brought successful class-action suits (against public utilities regarding rates, for example), lent support to unionizing efforts, and lobbied hard for causes generally perceived as liberal. Even supporters acknowledge overzealousness in some cases.

Still, in reaching its "minimum access" goal to two attorneys per 10,000 poor people, the Legal Services Corporation provides far fewer than the national average (14 per 10,000).

As the debate begins among the largely lawyerly ranks on Capitol Hill, judges and attorneys are rallying to the cause of legal aid for the poor.

Ninety-four New York judges last week jointly protested President Reagan's plan to abolish federal legal services. Testifying in the Congress this week, former federal Judge Harold Tyler called the plan "a deplorable reversal of out pursuit of the great national goal of equal justive for all."

The White House suggests that "pro bono" (voluntary) help from private lawyers and legal aid programs to be established at the state level will make up the difference, but other experts in the area disagree.

Rep. Tom Railsback (R) of Illinois, ranking Republican on the House subcommittee considering the future of the Legal Services Corporation, says voluntary legal aid from private lawyers "wouldn't begin to make a dent in the legal needs of the poor."

If the legal program is absorbed into the whittled down block grants, warns former Texas state bar president Chrys Dougherty, "the chances are that aid to the poor would get lost in the rush" for reduced funds.

Others worry about how willing state or local officials would be to establish (not to mention letting operate independently) an agency that might be taking its overseers to court. "The political pressures against most local programs' integrity and effectiveness will be obvious and debilitating," Judge Tyler predicts.

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