Attorneys do battle over LSC cuts

“Freedom, justice, liberty: without lawyers they're only words” – a grandiose but relevant theme for the American Bar Association's annual meeting in Florida last month.

Relevant because justice and liberty for America's poor, Hillary Clinton, the US President's wife, argued at the convention, is coming under increasing threat from cuts to the Legal Services Corporation, the US equivalent of the Legal Aid Board.

The LSC was founded in 1975 by President Nixon. Its job is to provide federal funds to local legal service programmes run in deprived areas of the US which provide free lawyers and legal clinics, or neighbourhood law offices, for the poor.

The lawyers are employed full-time by the legal projects themselves which generally get funding from the state, from the federal government through the LSC and from charitable donations.

They help battered women file divorce petitions, unlawfully evicted tenants regain their homes and migrant and immigrant workers in battles with their employers.

At the beginning of the year the Republican-dominated Congress slashed LSC funding by a third from $400 million to $278 million. And it has imposed restrictions on the kinds of cases federally-funded legal bodies can take up. Lawyers reckon the cuts mean a third of the 4,700 lawyers employed by legal service programmes could be laid off and 300 to 400 of the 1,200 neighbourhood law offices could close.

The cuts have come about because of criticism that tax-payers' money was being used to fight political causes in the courts. Some actions brought by LSC-funded bodies challenged welfare reform, other actions, known as 're-districting' challenged the size and shape of the borders of electoral districts. Representing people being evicted from public housing for alleged drug offences, helping women on abortion matters, acting on prisoners' rights and representing immigrants have been equally controversial for America's religious groups and right-wing politicians.

Bodies receiving money from the LSC have now been banned from taking on any of these sorts of actions.

How are the lawyers coping on the ground? The short-term effect has been that cases are being turned away. Some offices are only taking cases that threaten life or shelter. Others say they now have to ask battered wives: “How many times were you hit and was there a weapon involved?”

But there are ways around the restrictions and cuts. The state of Washington is leading the way. It has split its legal services operations into two halves: one receives LSC funding and can do non-politically sensitive actions; the other receives state or private charitable funding and can take on the banned cases. Clients ring a central body which refers them to one or the other body.

To help the funding crisis, 54 of the largest Washington DC law firms have pledged more pro bono work, putting lawyers on secondment to legal clinics. The ABA and other national legal bodies are trying to encourage legal service programmes to save money by clubbing together in each state and using computer software to pool legal research.

The battle is also being fought on the political front, hence Hillary Clinton's speech to ABA delegates last month in which she told lawyers to fight for the LSC.

This year's cuts will not be the end of the story. Some Republicans are openly planning to reduce the LSC's grant to zero in a few years and replace it with block grants direct to states – a move which the ABA claims will “provide far fewer resources than are necessary to meet even the baseline of legal services to the poor”.

The outcome of the political battle is one that British lawyers and politicians would do well to watch.