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Severe budget cuts and a new wave of crippling restrictions have jeopardised the future of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in the US and limited access to justice for the poor.
LSC spokeswoman Niki Mitchell said the decision of Congress to cut the corporation's budget by a third this year, from $400 million last year to $278 million, would lead to the closure of up to 400 neighbourhood legal offices.
She said legal aid attorneys were now prohibited from representing prisoners and illegal immigrants, handling class actions or cases involving abortion or welfare reform. They can no longer lobby or offer opinions on federal regulations or laws affecting poor clients.
LSC president Alexander Forger said the cuts represented the form of inequitable rationing of justice that the US Constitution sought to avoid.
"With these new restrictions and funding cuts, the poor are essentially deprived of equal protection under the law and the same level of legal representation as people who can afford to hire a private attorney."
The LSC is a private, non- profit making body which distributes federal money to legal services programmes across the US, which in turn run neighbourhood law offices. It handles civil law matters, typically representing illegal immigrant farm workers, war veterans, tenants, the disabled and victims of domestic violence.
Mitchell said the LSC had had enemies in the conservative community for several years.
Opponents resent the free legal assistance available for drug dealers evicted from public housing or illegal immigrants who are exploited as farm workers. The religious right objects to the LSC's involvement in divorce cases.
Mitchell said some legal aid attorneys had left the profession following the announcement. "A lot of people have retired, some have become sole practitioners, some have formed other organisations that don't take Legal Services Corporation money so they can freely practise law," she said.
National Legal Aid and Defender Association media advisor Carol Honsa said the association was advising legal services programmes on how to cut back with minimum disruption to clients.
"There are private attorneys who work pro bono, but there's certainly not enough to cover this gap," she said.