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Originally published Friday, July 31, 2009 at 4:14 PM

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Guest columnist

Make legal aid for the poor higher priority in economic downturn

During this economic downturn, more low-income people are facing legal problems, such as foreclosure proceedings, without professional legal representation, writes César Torres of the Northwest Justice Project. Legal-aid dollars have been falling. Time to reprioritize this important service.

Special to The times

OUR national ideal of equal justice for all, of equality before the law, is the linchpin of our national identity and the source of our international stature. But, this ideal is sorely tested every day when justice is out of reach for people facing urgent civil legal problems and unable to afford an attorney.

The severe economic deterioration and the record unemployment of the past year dramatize the challenges to our ideal of equal justice. Unemployment in Washington has risen to 9.3 percent; foreclosures have risen nearly 40 percent and bankruptcy filings are up more than 50 percent above last year. Based on past recessions, today's unemployment will increase poverty by 20 percent in the coming years, bringing the number of people struggling below the poverty line in Washington to nearly 1 million.

These statistics speak of thousands more families confronting legal problems — problems with life-altering consequences — without any legal help whatsoever. There is no right to legal assistance in most civil cases and available resources cannot meet the need. Overwhelmingly, families facing foreclosure or eviction, challenging the denial of unemployment benefits, confronting a collection agency, challenging unfair consumer practices, seeking medical care or food stamps, or seeking the court's protection when facing domestic violence are on their own.

The lack of civil legal aid for the poor puts great financial strains on our courts as large numbers of people unfamiliar with legal requirements try to represent themselves. The lack of civil legal aid makes it that much more difficult for judges to do justice when unrepresented litigants appear before them. Even worse, when one side is represented and the other is not, the possibility of reaching fair outcomes is greatly diminished. Civil legal aid is also the best way to reduce avoidable costs of homelessness, errors in denials of medical assistance, consumer abuse, protection from family violence and other problems that strain the social-safety net.

On July 25, 1974, Congress created the independent Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide high-quality civil legal assistance to the nation's poor and promote equal access to justice. LSC provides funding to 137 legal-aid programs across the country — including the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), Washington's statewide legal-aid program.

In 2008, NJP provided direct legal assistance to nearly 20,000 low-income Washington households through a statewide legal-aid hotline (888-201-1014) and 17 offices located around the state. NJP operates, a free Web site containing hundreds of legal publications, forms and instructions — many in several languages. NJP is an integral member of Washington's Alliance for Equal Justice and actively supports the work of thousands of Washington attorneys who volunteer each year to assist low-income families and individuals facing urgent civil legal problems.

The fact remains that the great majority of low-income people do not have access to justice. In our state and in many others, estimates are that only two out of 10 low-income people seeking help with serious civil legal problems are able to obtain legal assistance. Federal funding has not recovered since drastic cuts in 1995. In real dollars, congressional funding for LSC in 2009 is about half of what it was in 1980.

As the Legal Services Corporation marks its 35th anniversary, we need to take stock of the importance of civil legal aid for the well-being of our neighbors, our communities, and the administration of justice in our society. Recognizing the importance of legal aid, especially during difficult economic times, the Obama administration has recommended increasing LSC funding in 2010. Congress must ensure adequate federal funding for civil legal aid services here in Washington and around the country.

As a nation committed to equal justice, we can afford no less.

César E. Torres is executive director of the Northwest Justice Project.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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