Make legal aid for the poor higher priority in economic downturn

Published on The Seattle Times, by César E. Torres, July 31, 2009.

During this economic downturn, more low-income people are facing legal problems, such as foreclosure proceedings, without professional legal representation, writes César Torres of the Northwest Justice Project. Legal-aid dollars have been falling. Time to reprioritize this important service.

OUR national ideal of equal justice for all, of equality before the law, is the linchpin of our national identity and the source of our international stature. But, this ideal is sorely tested every day when justice is out of reach for people facing urgent civil legal problems and unable to afford an attorney …  

… In 2008, NJP provided direct legal assistance to nearly 20,000 low-income Washington households through a statewide legal-aid hotline (888-201-1014) and 17 offices located around the state. NJP operates www.washingtonlawhelp.org, a free Web site containing hundreds of legal publications, forms and instructions — many in several languages. NJP is an integral member of Washington’s Alliance for Equal Justice and actively supports the work of thousands of Washington attorneys who volunteer each year to assist low-income families and individuals facing urgent civil legal problems.

The fact remains that the great majority of low-income people do not have access to justice. In our state and in many others, estimates are that only two out of 10 low-income people seeking help with serious civil legal problems are able to obtain legal assistance. Federal funding has not recovered since drastic cuts in 1995. In real dollars, congressional funding for LSC in 2009 is about half of what it was in 1980.

As the Legal Services Corporation marks its 35th anniversary, we need to take stock of the importance of civil legal aid for the well-being of our neighbors, our communities, and the administration of justice in our society. Recognizing the importance of legal aid, especially during difficult economic times, the Obama administration has recommended increasing LSC funding in 2010. Congress must ensure adequate federal funding for civil legal aid services here in Washington and around the country.

As a nation committed to equal justice, we can afford no less. (full text).

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