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Loss of legal services would threaten foundations of democracy

By: Julie Reiskin and John Zakhem
May 28, 2017 Updated: May 30, 2017 at 7:36 am
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One of the programs slotted for elimination in the proposed federal budget released May 23 is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Sounds ominous . what is the Legal Services Corporation and why should it receive funding from the federal government? LSC was created by President Nixon as an integral part of our judicial system. LSC provides grant funding to more than 130 legal services organizations throughout the country. In Colorado, LSC provides annual grants to Colorado Legal Services (CLS) which in turn assists thousands of needy Coloradans with critical legal issues. Every year, CLS serves more than 10,000 Coloradans and receives 40 percent of its funding from LSC. CLS provides free, vital representation to indigent Coloradans, including:

- Civil legal assistance. In criminal cases that could result in jail time there is a constitutional right to a lawyer.

However, there is no constitutional right to counsel in civil cases which results in many unrepresented people in the courtrooms. Americans at risk of losing their children or homes and victims of unscrupulous companies or civil rights violations by the government require access to attorneys. CLS helps veterans, the disabled, the elderly and domestic violence victims. CLS is also uniquely qualified to provide highly specialized legal help in times of emergency, such as aiding Coloradans displaced during the 2013 floods in northern Colorado.

- CLS also acts as a hub for pro bono volunteer lawyers to donate their services to the needy. "Pro bono" does not mean free - someone must organize and train the many volunteer lawyers that help low and middle-income people. CLS provides support for attorneys that volunteer their time.

- CLS has been actively involved in a movement called "Access to Justice." Many states, including Colorado, have an Access to Justice Commission, a public/private partnership that works with the courts, businesses and the bar association to make the civil justice system more accessible to all. Results of this effort include the creation of self-help centers, plain language legal forms, incentives for attorneys to perform more pro bono and more. CLS also has a statewide website to provide necessary information, both for self-help and for attorneys willing to donate their time.

Some people mistakenly believe that LSC funds organizations that employ lawyers to carry out a subversive, liberal agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. Restrictions implemented in 1996 prohibit LSC's attorneys from any political activity. Staff from LSC-funded organizations cannot engage in grassroots organizing, lobbying or class action litigation. LSC aggressively monitors all grantees to ensure that these restrictions are honored. LSC is a well-run nonprofit that recently received the best possible rating for FOIA compliance.

Guaranteeing access to justice for everyone is essential to a well-ordered democracy. If low and middle-income people are barred from our court system, they will no longer trust it and the foundation of our democracy is threatened. While LSC is not the only funding source for civil legal aid, it is the largest and defunding it will wreak chaos in the legal system. Courts are already overwhelmed by the abundance of litigation. If the indigent go unrepresented, court cases are delayed. Businesses and the government will suffer greater inefficiencies and pay higher costs as a result of a bogged-down judicial system.

In light of the potential harm that would befall our court system if LSC cannot continue with its vital work, the American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, 161 law school deans, 25 deans from Catholic law schools, leaders of more than 150 large law firms, general counsel from 185 companies, and many others have signed letters objecting to the proposed elimination of LSC.

Access to justice is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it is an American value. As the Honorable Learned Hand cautioned, "If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice."

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Julie Reiskin is the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and a Democrat who lives in Denver. She serves on the Legal Services Corporation board of directors as a client (nonattorney) representative. John Zakhem is a partner with Jackson Kelly law firm in Denver, chair of the Colorado Access to Justice Resources Committee and a Jefferson County Republican.

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