Today's Washington Post's lead editorial calls for liberating the Legal Services Corporation from several federal restrictions that for years have hamstrung state legal aid organizations, such as Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau. As the editorial mentions, the restrictions include prohibitions against spending any public money on class action suits, abortion-related litigation, and the representation of undocumented workers. Loosening such limits is a good idea, but equally if not more important is the effort to boost the LSC's budget. The LSC, which was created by Congress to fund legal aid bureaus around the country, had a budget of $390 million for 2009, and the Post reports that the House approved on Thursday a measure that would increase that number to $440 million. That's a positive if modest improvement. Hopefully the Senate can find even more funds for the LSC, which plays a vital role in protecting the poor, especially in a recessionary economy.
I can't help recalling a speech given three years ago to the Equal Justice Council of Maryland by Jonathan Lindley, then Executive Director of Service Design for the Legal Services Commission, England’s counterpart to our LSC. He caught my attention by comparing the United States' commitment to legal aid to that of his country. While 50 million Americans are unable to afford legal counsel, he estimated then, four million are similarly situated in England and Wales. Yet the British government outspends our own by a multiple of three in funding for legal aid.
In 2005 the Legal Services Commission received the current equivalent of $1.6 billion in government grants for performing civil legal services on behalf of needy citizens in England and Wales, according to its annual report. For that same year, the Congress coughed up $335 million for our Legal Services Corporation, upon which legal aid bureaus around the U.S. heavily rely. Based on these numbers, I estimated at the time that the United Kingdom, with its population of about 60 million, spends more than $26 per person on legal aid. The U.S. spends just over $1 per person.
Saliently, the front page of today's Post includes a headline that reads: "Recovery's Missing Ingredient: New Jobs." "Despite signs that the recession gripping the nation's economy may be easing, the unemployment rate is projected to continue rising for another year before topping out in double digits, a prospect that threatens to slow growth, increase poverty," the story reads. That's as good a reason as any to do all we possibly can to enhance the ability of cash-strapped legal aid organizations to fulfill their critical mission.
(If you're interested in supporting the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, of which I'm a board member, click here.)