Durant: shift public legal aid to private sector

Clark Durant seems remarkably cheerful for a fellow who many feel is standing at the helm of a Titanic. Mr. Durant, however, refuses to concede that the long-beleaguered Legal Services Corporation (LSC) -- which coordinates the nation's public-lawyer programs for the poor -- is a sinking ship. And despite rumors to the contrary, he denies that his appointment as LSC chairman by President Reagan carries with it a mandate to dismantle the federal program.

``I think it will be the will of Congress that the corporation will survive and that the question will be to discuss programmatic sorts of things more than the question of survival,'' Durant says.

William Clark Durant is a tall, affable man. A former Detroit lawyer who has served as vice-president of conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, he is also an unabashed supporter of President Reagan's fiscal and social philosophies.

In December, when the President appointed him to an interim term as chairman of LSC, political suspicions mounted that Mr. Reagan would use Durant to shelve the legal agency. When the chief executive said recently (reiterating an earlier commitment) that he aims to de-fund LSC and scuttle its programs, Durant called the President ``courageous.''

But in recent testimony before a House subcommittee, Durant sounded very much unlike his White House idol.

``I believe the provision of legal service is too important to be just another federal program,'' he told congressmen. ``It is an essential and integral part of our system of justice. Almost everyone needs legal representation at one time or another, and we have an obligation to make sure that even the poorest of the poor have places to turn to with their legal problems.''

The solution he sees to providing that legal service is not more government funding, however. He believes, as does President Reagan, that the free-market system is the key to solving social evils, including legal problems of the poor. That, certainly, will be his approach to running LSC if his appointment is confirmed by the Senate, as it likely will be in the next few weeks.

The LSC chairman visited the offices of the Monitor recently and talked about opening dialogue and building trust between his agency and Congress, liberal critics, and the more than 1 million poor who receive legal services annually through 300 federally funded legal-services programs across the United States.

He also discussed a need for ``innovative new approaches'' to getting justice for those who cannot afford private legal services. ``My goal is to maximize access to justice for poor people,'' Mr. Durant said. He says the time has come ``to start over again and reform the existing program in such a way that it gets back to a purpose of only and specifically delivering traditional notions of legal aid to workers.''

Durant wants to establish a public-private partnership for dispensing legal help. He is eager to involve the private bar in low-cost or no-cost (pro bono) services. He would even get paralegal volunteers to help adjudicate some civil suits. And he leans toward eliminating ``class action'' suits or group litigation from LSC's repertoire.

In this way, the legal services chairman believes that a proposed congressionally appropriated budget of $305 million for the coming fiscal year will not only keep his agency afloat but will also allow it to launch his ``innovative'' approach.

Those committed to massive government-sponsored and publically financed anti-poverty programs, including legal services, are skeptical. They see Durant and other Ronald Reagan appointees to the 11-member LSC board as holding the fort until the President finds a way to convince Congress to ditch the program.

Soon after the Republican administration took office in 1981, conservatives in the White House and Congress sought to reel in federal legal-services programs. They also probed allegations that some were being illegally used to lobby for social activist causes, such as promoting farm-labor benefits and warring against state tax-limitation measures (the latter usually result in the curtailment of poverty-related programs). After extended investigations, neither the Justice Department nor the General Accounting Office found violations of federal law.

However, critics of federally funded legal services -- led by President Reagan -- have successfully pared down about 80 percent of LSC programs over a four-year period. Overall budgets have been trimmed by 25 percent. And more than a handful of politically embattled local and regional legal-services officials have either been fired or left during this time.

All this, along with the President's outspoken commitment to shelve the whole program, has placed LSC on the brink.

But Clark Durant thinks the program will survive -- partly because congressional support is likely to continue. Its success will depend on diverse political and social factions being receptive to ``new ideas.'' These would include increasing the ways the private sector might deliver legal services to the poor, and a refocus on individual legal problems over group causes.

``It's that entrepreneurial spirit that we need to try and unleash,'' Durant explains. ``I don't have all the answers,'' he admits. ``I don't even have all the questions. But the creativity is out there . . . and if it can be encouraged and stimulated, that's what I would like to do.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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