By | May 11, 2016

For almost 100 years, the American Bar Association (ABA) has partnered with charitable and publicly funded efforts to provide legal services for the poor. 

Path through the woodsIn 1919, Reginald Heber Smith, a practitioner in a legal aid charity, argued that it was the duty of the law profession to ensure access to justice for everyone regardless of income. In his seminal book, Justice and the Poor, Smith asserted that, where the law caused injustice or unfairness to low-income clients, this duty included vigorous attempts to reform the law itself.

Smith had crucial allies among America’s top lawyers, including Charles Evans Hughes, a statesman, lawyer, and Supreme Court Justice. At its 1920 convention, Hughes engineered the ABA’s endorsement of legal services for all and the creation of a the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, or SCLAID, a committee that exists to this day.

In 1967, as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver added legal services as a service provided to low-income communities through the Community Action Program. The ABA, through its then-president, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, was a key ally in moving the legal services component of the War on Poverty through Congress.

Hearkening back to Reginald Heber Smith’s model, Shriver endorsed the notion that representation should include policy-type work, then known as “law reform.”  This was consistent with Shriver’s belief people in poor communities should be given tools to create their own paths out of poverty, not handouts.    

Landlords, investors, bankers, employers—virtually every interest group is represented in debate over policies and budgets that implicate the interests of low-income people. The lone exception, until the War on Poverty, was people in poverty themselves. Through legal services, low-income people got a seat at the table and began to win or influence some of these debates. The process was fairer, and the concept of equal justice was more complete.

Not surprisingly, the very success of this model also brought constant pressure from opposing interests to terminate or constrain it. Consistent support from the ABA thwarted efforts to terminate the legal services program, but in 1996 Congress severely restricted the ability of lawyers in frontline programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation to engage in many types of policy work in legislatures, administrative agencies, and the courts.

Since then, efforts to provide legal representation to low-income people on policy and budget debates have been funded privately, mostly by foundations and donors. Lawyers and law firms in private practice have become key leaders. They serve as board members and contributors to legal services providers. And they are pro bono co-counsel in high-impact “law reform” litigation that nonprofit legal aid organizations, standing alone, might not have the resources to undertake. 

The Shriver Center, where I work, arose in response to that 1996 crisis. Today, the Shriver Center also leads a network of state-focused law and policy organizations working in 32 states and the District of Columbia – the Legal Impact Network. Although all of these organizations have an impressive record of legal and policy advocacy victories on behalf of low-income people, some of the network’s members have very small staffs, all of them are under-funded, and all need support

Today, the ABA continues its support of the movement to ensure justice for the poor. This week, key players in the civil justice system, including advocates, pro bono providers, and bar leaders, will gather in Chicago at the Equal Justice Conference, a joint effort of the ABA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Much of the focus at this year’s conference will be on efforts to ensure that everyone who needs an attorney can find and afford one.

Beyond access to justice, ongoing efforts by the ABA and others to support programs that provide policy and systemic advocacy for low-income clients are more important than ever. It is only with the robust participation of lawyers in every state—as board members, donors, and pro bono partners—that we may obtain the fullest measure of equal justice for poor clients.   

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