|Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2006|
By Ed Harnden
The Oregon State Bar has long been a champion of access to legal services for the poor and increased funding for the legal aid programs that provide these services. It was therefore distressing to read that in the many headlines of this past month were a pair of disapproving press accounts about the national Legal Services Corp., which was criticized for the cost of national board meetings held in hotels, meals for the board, the cost of two car rides, and office space for the national corporation. (Oregonian, Aug. 15, 2006). While LSC denies allegations distributed by the Associated Press and aired on the CBS Evening News, and has issued a lengthy response rebutting the allegations (available online at www.lsc.gov/press), it is important to keep in mind a few facts when talking about legal service programs and their funding.
Oregon’s local legal services program, Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO), is an independent nonprofit organization, and it does not control how money is spent in Washington, D.C. The national board, appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, receives its funding from Congress (which appropriates money for administrative overhead apart from the funds that directly serve clients). In contrast, Oregon’s legal aid programs receive most of their funding locally and are monitored by the Oregon State Bar’s Legal Services Program.
The complaints relating to the national legal services corporation should not deter the legal profession from its commitment to assisting low-income clients.
Let us keep a few key matters in mind.
Who funds legal aid? A portion of Oregon court filing fees goes to help fund legal aid and is administered by the Oregon State Bar’s Legal Services Program. Other money comes from the Oregon Law Foundation (through interest on lawyer trust accounts), grants, and the Campaign for Equal Justice, a separate 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Only LASO receives money from the national Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C.
Providing access to justice is an important part of professionalism. The ABA’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 provides that "every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay" and that "a lawyer should voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means." Although Oregon did not adopt ABA Rule 6.1, presumably because it would be difficult to enforce, the state bar’s Statement on Professionalism acknowledges the importance of lawyering in the public interest and in helping "lawyers recognize their obligation to make legal services available to all members of society." Justice O’Connor has explained this aspect of professionalism as follows: "Lawyers possess the keys to justice under a rule of law, the keys that open the courtroom door. Those keys are not held for lawyers’ own private purposes; they are held in trust for those who would seek justice, rich and poor alike."
Legal aid programs in Oregon are currently able to serve less than 20 percent of the legal needs of Oregon’s 600,000 poor. Legal aid programs handle cases in critical areas of need such as family law (40 percent of cases), housing, income maintenance and other areas. The two largest providers of legal services to the poor, Legal Aid Services of Oregon and the Oregon Law Center, have offices in 15 communities around the state with additional satellite offices in McMinnville, Independence and St. Helens. Two independent programs, the Lane County Center for Law and Advocacy, and the Center for Non-profit Legal Services (Medford), also provide free legal services for Oregon’s poor. Areas on the north coast, southern Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge are grossly underserved. The programs all have volunteer boards, community-based priority setting, and operate on modest budgets that are inadequate to meet demand for services.
As Oregon lawyers, we must do better than serve 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income clients. Denying access to justice to our most vulnerable citizens can have devastating consequences for our system of justice and our democracy. As stated by former ABA President Robert Grey, "Every place that legal aid exists, lives are improved and conditions are better, and this democracy lives another day because of it." The public’s perception of the legal system is also greatly influenced by access to a lawyer.
We can and must do better than 20 percent. As we work together toward that goal, we need to stay focused on the mission of providing access to justice for all. Let’s not be distracted.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Harnden, a Portland lawyer, is the chair of the Campaign for Equal Justice and a past president of the Oregon State Bar.
© 2006 Ed Harnden