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May 01, 2014

LSC: What Members of Congress Need to Know

Harriet Miers, a longtime ABA member, is former White House counsel and a commissioner on the Texas Access to Justice Commission. She inspired this year’s ABA Day participants with her speech during the April 9 Breakfast Briefing on Capitol Hill. The following are excerpted remarks from that presentation:

Today we will petition our federal government representatives and senators, seeking their help in our quest for providing the benefits of our nation’s system of laws to those who need legal services but cannot afford them.

The meetings we will have today, and maybe those you held yesterday, in many instances are with individuals who are very wary of legal services activities, are concerned about deficits and the need to cut or balance spending to live within our means as a country, or have both worries.

No senator or representative need be wary of legal services activities. Yes, issues have existed in the past. Today, to address concerns raised in the past, accommodating restrictions are placed on the use of federal funds, and even other funds intermixed with those federal funds. Unfortunately, though, people remember…what they heard decades ago from a constituent or what they even experienced themselves.   

That is why we carry into every legislative office we visit one piece of paper that lists all the things legal services programs do not do and cannot do. No class actions, no redistricting cases, no abortion-related litigation, no prisoner cases, no cases involving assisted suicide, no undocumented aliens except in domestic violence cases. In other words, no hot-button political issues.   

We have found that garnering support for legal services to the poor among legislators or members of the executive branch is more successful when we can demonstrate that providing additional resources to provide such services is cost-effective: money spent is money saved.  

Lawmakers concerned about the wise use of funds can’t really argue with the wisdom of spending a little to save a lot. For example, when a family whose home is being taken from them by an unscrupulous landlord or by illegal lending practices receives legal help and their home is preserved, the family does not find itself homeless needing government help to a much greater extent than if they could stay in their home.  

We have found that members of Congress and state legislatures want to be assured that clients and their situations are carefully screened for eligibility. LSC, and we, can without doubt give them that assurance. We also can tell them that once carefully scrutinized for qualification, it is estimated that only one in five legitimate legal needs can be served. There can be no question about need.

Understanding the need for the infrastructure for legal services to the poor and the real use of the funds provided, appropriators are more likely to be a friend. Even then they want also want to be assured everyone else is doing their part, including the legal profession.

Building on the Legal Services Corporation framework, our state court systems, bar associations, and organizations like the Access to Justice commissions and foundations are able to partner to meet the goal of providing access to justice for all.  

Increasingly, state legislatures, like Texas, [also] are providing state funding to assist in the effort. And certainly government, state or federal or both, is not asked to do it alone. Lawyers in Texas donate in a year’s time pro bono services in an amount that is conservatively estimated to be valued at one half of a billion dollars.

In summary, approaching the most difficult-to-convince individual senator or representative, we hope we can do the following:

•eliminate fears or misconceptions about how appropriated funds will be used;

•provide concrete examples of highly sympathetic people whose lives have been saved or changed for the better;

•describe mechanisms that ensure accountability for the programs that use public funds; and

•choose the right messengers to present the case to a lawmaker for legal services to the poor.

We should be equipped to show what a failure to provide access to our justice system for the poor means in human cost and potential economic loss. Importantly though, we should share our views of how, by not providing for access to justice to our most vulnerable, we severely damage our reputation as a fair and honorable nation truly built on our belief in liberty and justice for all. 

Access to justice and our courts should be available to the poor in our society. It is a goal for which we all should strive, and we need the help of our lawmakers. We can be most proud when all of our people have access to that system of justice, regardless of wealth or stature.

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