The poor have legal needs too

THERE he goes again. Since 1981 President Reagan has repeatedly tried to abolish the federal Legal Services Corporation. This year is no exception. His administration has again proposed the elimination of the corporation in its most recent budget. But now more than ever, with the number of people at or below the poverty line growing, it would be a mistake to abandon legal services for the poor.

President Reagan has been out to get legal services programs since he was governor of California. Now he clings to the notion that if legal aid is to exist at all, either the private bar or state and local governments would be sufficient to meet the legal needs of poor people. But he would probably prefer to see legal services eliminated altogether. His administration and many conservatives view legal-aid lawyers as ideologically motivated attorneys who abuse government funds to bring so-called ``impact'' class-action suits. A few years ago the columnist Patrick Buchanan, now White House communications director, wrote in the Chicago Tribune that the corporation ``has become yet another playpen for radical children who believe they have some God-given right to use tax dollars to implement their ideas of social change.''

Nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1974, when Congress established the Legal Services Corporation, class-action suits brought by legal-aid lawyers have constituted a very small percentage of the cases in legal-aid offices. In those few cases they have been the appropriate legal action since many of the poor suffer from the same problems. But concentrating on class actions misses the real point. One walk through a crowded waiting room at any neighborhood legal-services office would prove to any unbeliever that the daily work of a legal-aid lawyer involves not controversial policy issues but such mundane matters as utility bills and entitlement checks.

As a law student, I have learned firsthand that legal-services lawyers play a vital role in our society in helping those who cannot help themselves. This year I have had the opportunity to work full time for three months at an active legal-aid office in New Haven, Conn. There, in one of the nation's poorest cities, I have observed attorneys help tenants who were illegally being evicted or relocated, assist neglected and delinquent children in need of special-education programs, aid both the young and old with problems in obtaining payments legally owed them, and represent spouses who desperately needed help resolving divorce matters. These poor people deserve the full protection of the law. But without legal aid, they could not afford it.

What's more, the quality of life for all citizens would be diminished if low-income people were denied equal access to the courts.

Whole communities suffer when some of its members find it difficult to get justice in dealing with landlords, government officials, and store owners. A lack of access to the legal system could be disastrous. If the poor lose one of their principal means of peacefully settling concerns within the sytem, they might choose to vent their frustrations on the rest of society.

The administration's alternatives are unrealistic. To abolish the corporation in favor of state and local funding would, in addition to creating potentially 50 different bureaucracies, ignore the reality of state finances and the intent of the corporation's original sponsors to insulate it from political interference. Legal disputes involving the poor are often with the same state and local officials who would, under the Reagan scenario, be making the decisions of how much money to allocate to the legal-services programs. Moreover, it is no answer to say that the private bar should meet the legal needs of the poor. The corporation and its predecessors were originally founded for the very reason that the private bar could not meet the full range of these legal needs by simply taking pro bono publico cases.

Our democracy can only function if our legal system is available to all citizens, not merely those who can afford private legal services. With the President's latest budget proposal, we will once again have to rely on the resiliency of the legal-services community and the resolve of Congress to keep the Legal Services Corporation alive, as has been the case every year of the Reagan presidency, so that there can be justice for all.

James L. Cott is a third-year law student at the School of Law at Northeastern University in Boston.

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