Legal-aid services that help the poor navigate civil disputes are in a state of crisis in the down economy, says NPR.
Unlike criminal cases, Americans have no federal guarantee of legal representation in civil disputes, such as fighting evictions or solving child-custody conflicts. Though federal and state governments helped support legal-aid services in the past, such programs are endangered as public budgets have slimmed down.
In addition, the interest that collects on trust accounts that lawyers set up for clients also helps support legal-aid programs. But with interest rates at record lows, that source of money has diminished as well.
As a result, many programs have suffered, says Jim Sandman, head of the national Legal Services Corp, which supports legal-aid programs nationwide. He estimates that one in seven legal-aid employees has lost his or her job over the past couple of years, at a time when demand has been exploding. More 60 million Americans now qualify for civil legal aid, he says.
“We have a great legal system in the United States, but it’s built on the premise that you have a lawyer,” says Mr. Sandman. “And if you don’t have a lawyer, the system often doesn’t work for you.”
But as Congress debates how much money to allocate to legal aid in the coming year, Ken Boehm, a former Legal Services official who now runs the National Legal and Policy Center, urges due diligence. “Many of the checks and balances and reforms and methods of accountability you would find in any other government agency just aren’t there,” says Mr. Boehm.