Friday, March 27, 2009

Senators introduce bill to increase Legal Services funding and to lift restrictions is reporting today that a key group of Democratic senators has introduced a bill to increase funding for the Legal Services Corp. (LSC) and to lift many of the restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys, such as the prohibition on the filing of class actions and the collection of attorney fees. The senators said the bill was necessary because the federal commitment to legal services is not as effective as it needs to be. The legislation, called "The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009," does the following:

• Increases the authorized funding level for LSC to $750 million, which is approximately the amount appropriated in 1981, adjusted for inflation, which was the high-water mark for LSC funding. At the time, this level was seen as sufficient to provide a minimum level of access to legal aid in every county. Adjusted for inflation, this "minimum access" level would need to be about $750 million today.

• Lifts many of the restrictions currently placed on legal tools that LSC-funded attorneys can use to represent their clients. The bill lifts the prohibition on collecting attorney fees, permits legal aid attorneys to bring class actions grounded in existing law and permits lobbying with nonfederal funds. "In the spirit of compromise," the senators said, the bill does maintain the prohibition on abortion-related litigation as well as many of the limits on whom LSC-funded programs can represent, including undocumented immigrants (with limited exceptions such as victims of domestic violence), prisoners challenging prison conditions and people charged with illegal drug possession in public housing eviction proceedings.

• Lifts all restrictions, except those related to abortion litigation, on the use of nonfederal funds. Lifting these restrictions allows individual states, cities and donors the ability to determine themselves how best to spend nonfederal funds to ensure access to the courts.

• Authorizes a grant program from the Department of Education to expand law school clinics.

The bill is supported by, among others, the American Bar Association, Brennan Center for Justice, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National Organization of Legal Service Workers and United Auto Workers.

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