PUBLICLY funded legal aid for the poor has been a facet of American life for more than 20 years. Depending on one's perspective, it has either been a bulwark of equal justice, or a vehicle for crusading liberals.
In practice, legal aid may have had elements of both. But its day-to-day work concentrates on such matters as tenant-landlord relations, consumer fraud, marital problems, and, inevitably considering the clientele, government benefits. Politics may sometimes cling to disputes in these areas, but politics is not the purpose.
Yet the political-crusader perspective dominates in today's Republican-led Congress. Congressional opponents of legal aid have launched their own crusade to rein in the 323 programs, and 1,200 neighborhood law offices, that last year drew on federal dollars dispensed by the nonprofit Legal Services Corporation (LSC).
Like most organizations funded by the government, the LSC has been living on continuing resolutions in 1996. But its budget has effectively been sliced from $400 million to the House-approved figure of $278 million, a one-third cut.
In tandem with the budget blow, legal-services programs face a set of tight restrictions on their activities - including bans on class-action suits, on challenges to state welfare reforms, and on lobbying by legal-aid staff. These rules haven't yet been signed into law, but probably soon will be. President Clinton opposes them, but isn't likely to withhold his signature from a budget bill because of them. In budget terms, legal services is very small potatoes.
Neither does LSC loom very large in terms of the need it attempts to meet. Experts estimate that all the resources devoted to legal aid for the poor - pro bono work by private lawyers, state and private programs, as well as federal funding at last year's level - address only about 20 percent of the demand. A kind of triage is required. Divorce cases handled by legal-aid offices typically involve extreme cases of spousal abuse. Eviction cases often involve people on the verge of homelessness.
Sharp funding cuts were bound to come this year. But a crucial question is whether anti-legal-aid forces will be able to carry their campaign forward next year and wipe out the program.
Political motives may sometimes figure in the work of lawyers helping the poor; some tightening of guidelines may be needed. But helping impoverished people through legal tangles is more public service than politics. It gives "equal justice" added meaning.
That was recognized in 1974 when Congress and President Nixon established the LSC. It shouldn't be forgotten today.