The Legal Aid Squeeze : Local Officials Wonder Where Poor Will Find Counsel if Federal Program Is Cut

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baffled by the government forms in her hands, worried that her 89-year-old father might lose crucial benefits, Nancy Luya headed to the Legal Aid Society of Orange County for help.

"It's like fighting against something you don't know," the 57-year-old clerk said. "I didn't know what to do."

In another office on another day, paralegal Mary Aranda helped Paula Fuentes appeal a move cutting Medi-Cal hospital coverage for her 10-month-old son, who is sick with fever and seizures. With her 2-year-old son squirming on her lap and her 4-year-old daughter sitting quietly beside her, Fuentes said she was desperate for the free legal help.

"I wouldn't know how to make it without Medi-Cal," said the 34-year-old whose husband labors as a farm worker but is barely able to cover the family's rent.

Thousands of low-income and elderly Orange County residents like Fuentes and Luya's father seek help from Legal Aid every year on civil legal matters ranging from custody disputes to housing problems.

But local Legal Aid officials fear they may soon be forced to close their doors as the 21-year-old federally funded program becomes the focus of budget-cutting efforts in Congress.

"These are people who literally have no place else to go," Robert J. Cohen, executive director of the Orange County legal aid group. "It's the civil equivalent to calling the police and having no one answer the phone."

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The Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to eliminate the Legal Services Corp., which distributes more than $400 million annually to legal programs for the poor nationwide, including $3.4 million to the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. The local organization also serves 15 cities in southeastern Los Angeles County.

The committee approved $210 million in block grants for the poor that would be up for bid to private attorneys and legal groups, and placed restrictions on its use. The restrictions include barring cases involving constitutional challenges to government action.

Republican supporters of the measure argue that legal aid funds have been misused for liberal political purposes, such as blocking welfare reform. The needs of the poor, they say, could be met by volunteer private lawyers and state and local agencies.

Orange County Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) has been among those calling for replacing the Legal Services Corp. with block grants for two years.

"We have to cut," said Paul Morrell, a spokesman for Dornan. "These are the decisions voters demanded in November. This is certainly a program . . . that fiscal conservatives have said is not something that is on our agenda."

Democrats contend the bill would dismantle the government's ability to ensure that poor people get legal help.

Local legal aid officials have been preparing for deep cuts--at the least--since the program wound up on a Republican hit list last spring. Seven employees, including two of the group's 17 attorneys, resigned with severance packages rather than face layoffs. In recent months the local society stopped taking new lengthy cases.

Barbara Youngblood, a veteran attorney who runs the society's Huntington Beach office, said she considered resigning, but decided to stay and do what she could for her clients during the time that remains.

"This is the first time in my memory that we've reached the point of total elimination, without any real thought about what happens to these people," said Youngblood, who has worked at Legal Aid for 15 years.

One former client said she and her two children might have become homeless were it not for help from Youngblood in divorcing her husband after he abandoned them, leaving only thousands of dollars in gambling debts.

"God only knows what would have happened," said the woman, who asked that her full name not be used. "I was stuck with all these bills. . . . Through the courts, [Youngblood] cleared me of the gambling debts and helped me establish a new life."

Another client said she and her husband, who is dying of cancer, might also have become homeless without help from legal aid in fighting two separate attempts to evict her. A Legal Aid attorney is now also helping the Brea couple fight a fee increase in their Medi-Cal coverage they contend is illegal.

"What will happen for these poor people who will have nowhere to turn?" the woman asked. "They are saving money on the backs of the poor in every single way they can."

Perhaps best known locally for its work with the homeless, the Legal Aid Society handled more than 9,200 cases in the county last year. Almost 70% of the Orange County residents seeking help were women. As of June 30 this year, the group had closed about 5,200 cases here. The bulk of those cases involved family law and housing issues.

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As the funding questions loom, local attorney groups, including the Orange County Bar Assn., have rallied in support of Legal Aid, saying the local poor would be left with few options for free legal services.

"[Legal Aid] serves four or five times the clients we do," said Scott Wylie, executive director of the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, which relies on private attorneys donating their time. "There's no way we can absorb all the clients who would be left."

The center would also be affected because it receives about a quarter of its $450,000 annual budget from the Legal Aid Society in exchange for accepting hundreds of extra cases, Wylie said.

Terence Roberts, who directs a small free legal clinic staffed by students at Western State University College of Law, said he already has felt the cutbacks at Legal Aid, as increasing numbers of people call for help.

"It's a sad state of affairs," Roberts said. "This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with a crying need for people to obtain some help in solving legal problems."

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How to Find Help

Here's a sample of free and low-cost legal services in Orange County. Several agencies and organizations provide referrals; private bar groups offer occasional clinics and consultations:

Legal Aid Society of Orange County

Free legal services for those who can't afford to hire a private attorney and who qualify as low-income. Locations:

* 902 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 835-8806

* 250 E. Cypress St., Anaheim, (714) 533-7490

* 525-A Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 536-8864

* Lawyers Referral Service, (714) 547-0763

Law Center

* (714) 541-1010

Orange County Bar Assn.

* Orange County Bar Lawyer Referral and Information Service and Modest Means Program, for those who don't qualify for free legal aid, (714) 835-8811

* Tel-Law, 24-hour number offers information on more than 200 law-related topics, (714) 835-5294

Western State University College of Law Legal Clinic

* 1900 E. La Palma Ave., Suite 208, Anaheim, (714) 491-8448

Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center

* (714) 541-0250

Mediation Center

* Low and no-fee services for mediation, (714) 250-4070

Legal Action Workshop

* Low-cost services specializing in assisting people in representing themselves, (714) 633-2840

CSP Domestic Violence Services

* Recorded messages on obtaining temporary restraining orders, (714) 973-0134

Sources: Individual organizations; Researched by ANNA CEKOLA / Los Angeles Times

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