Help the Poor, but Don't Fund Legal Services : Tort reform, not a federal program, is needed to increase accessibility for all people.

Kenneth F. Boehm and Peter T. Flaherty are chairman and president, respectively, of the National Legal and Policy Center. This commentary was adapted from their article in the current issue of Policy Review, the Heritage Foundation's quarterly journal

This week Congress will debate whether to phase out the $400-million Legal Services Corp. Republicans who are leading the charge to cut the program, among them Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), have been called "reptilian bastards" by George Bushnell, president of the American Bar Assn.

Proponents of the program say that taxpayer funds are necessary to give poor people access to legal counsel. Legal Services provides federal funds to 323 organizations that in turn provide lawyers to poor people in divorce, custody and child support proceedings, landlord-tenant and consumer credit disputes, challenges to denials of public benefits and other civil cases.

Opponents say that while providing legal help for individual poor people is important, there are much better ways to do so.

Serving the needs of individual poor people is not the primary objective of most legal-services lawyers. Rather, Legal Services grantees seek to "rescue" the poor as a class through litigated increases in transfer payments and government subsidies. For example, grantees have sued California to expand Medicaid payments, Arkansas to expand its child services system and New Jersey to lift a cap on Aid to Families With Dependent Children benefits for mothers on welfare who have additional children.

Legal Services grantees have sued dozens of local public housing authorities to prevent them from evicting drug dealers. They have signed up thousands of alcoholics and drug abusers for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. They have worsened the crisis of homelessness by litigating to protect panhandling and to establish a right to camp in city parks and streets.

This isn't the kind of legal help that poor people need most, and poor people would be better off if Legal Services were abolished. There are a number of attractive alternatives to federally funded legal services.

Private legal aid societies predated the federal program by almost 90 years and would be thriving today had the lure of federal money not made many of them dependent on Legal Services funds. Some are still flourishing. Last year the private Indianapolis Legal Aid Society handled 6,000 cases on behalf of poor clients--at one-fifth the cost per case of the local Legal Services affiliate.

Legal Services Expanded Judicare is another alternative to the Legal Services program. An indigent client employs a lawyer of his choice who is reimbursed by the government according to a set schedule of fees. This gives poor people more options than the Legal Services "staff attorney" system. Legal Services already funds a handful of Judicare programs. Once the federal role in legal services is ended, many state and local officials will be attracted to this model.

Lawyers have historically had a professional obligation to provide a certain amount of legal help "pro bono," for no or a reduced fee. The existence of the Legal Services program has provided many attorneys with a rationale for shirking responsibilities for their own communities. The law firm of Hunton & Williams offers an excellent model for pro bono work aimed at the working poor in Richmond, Va. Sixty of the firm's lawyers commit 40 to 60 hours a year; last year they represented 600 clients, charging each a flat fee of $50.

Another alternative is to avoid legal services altogether by using conciliation, arbitration, mediation and other ways to resolve disputes outside the courtroom. A community dispute resolution program in New York state relies on more than 2,000 trained volunteers, who last year conducted 25,000 conciliations, mediations and arbitrations involving over 63,000 people. Twenty-seven states have incorporated various methods of alternative dispute resolution into their court systems.

Some legal needs don't require lawyers. Independent paralegals and other specialists are performing tasks previously reserved for licensed attorneys--uncontested divorces, wills, estates, bankruptcies, real estate closings, child custody and support and immigration problems.

Legal services for the poor cannot be separated from legal services for everyone. Problems of affordability and accessibility are not limited to the poor. Everyone would benefit from tort reform that lowers the cost and prevalence of litigation.

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