While Congress’s attention continues to focus on the economy and health care reform, an important provision in Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations bill for FY 2010 will repeal the onerous “poison pill” restrictions on Legal Services Corporation grantees. LSC is the largest civil legal aid provider in the United States, but ever since the Gingrich Congress, LSC grantees have been prohibited from using some of the most effective tools when representing their clients, such as claiming and retaining attorneys’ fees and participating in class actions. Since at least 1996, access to legal assistance was severely restricted for certain low-income populations and numerous administrative burdens were imposed on LSC recipients and their clients.
But perhaps most significant, these restrictions were made applicable not just to activities supported by funds appropriated by Congress, but were applied to all of an LSC grantee’s activities, regardless of the source of the funds that supported them. In other words, a “poison pill” restriction applied the entire set of substantive restrictions to all the money that a legal services program received from state and local governments, private donors, and IOLTA once the program receives its first dollar of funds from LSC. These non-federal funds often account for more than half of an LSC grantees’ total funds.
Language in the Senate-passed CJS Appropriations bill would roll back this non-federal funds restriction. This will allow LSC grantees to use their non-federal dollars to participate in most of the currently restricted activities, although the prohibition on LSC grantees participating in abortion-related litigation and representing prisoners will remain in place.
This is an important change, and not only because it will permit legal service providers to serve more of the people who need their aid. Estimates show that four out of five poor people cannot get their legal needs met, and that there is one lawyer for approximately every eight thousand poor people, and this fairly minor provision is surely not a panacea to this nation’s justice-gap maladies. But this change is important because it signals a change in Congressional attitude towards legal aid and fosters renewed hope that bigger changes are coming. Until then, we should take some joy in small victories.