Legal Services Corporation: Four Decades of Service to People and Justice

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September 15, 2014; Miami Herald

NPQ has written often about the critical need for legal services to low-income people, particularly in the wake of the recession. Most local legal services offices are funded through a variety of sources, including IOTA/IOLTA fees, donations, and state grants, but also by grants from the Legal Services Corporation.

Although it has often been the target of conservative attempts to defund it, it is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with widespread support. Its conference, which ends today, is hosting luminaries like Justice Antonin Scalia, who spoke yesterday, and Vice President Joe Biden, who is speaking at lunch today.

Signed into existence in 1974 by President Richard M. Nixon, the Legal Services Corporation is a nonprofit that distributes funding to 134 other local independent nonprofit legal aid programs with nearly 800 offices. This year, it distributed more than $300 million, yet it estimates that it still served only approximately half of those who requested and were eligible for service. Federal appropriations have fallen for the program over the past few years even while the level of need, according to LSC, has risen significantly since 2007 and the Great Recession.

Nixon described the federal legal services program as “a workhorse” in the effort to secure equal rights in America. At the neighborhood law office, citizens could find help in any effort to seek civil justice:

“Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help. Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check—each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”

In 1971, Senator Mondale said, during a floor debate on the bill establishing the agency, “If the poor and the powerless do not have free access to our legal system, government by law is a failure.”—Ruth McCambridge