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Legal Aid to the Poor Falls Short

The state has made improvements, but the unmet need for help in civil matters remains large, state bar finds.

November 21, 2002|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 1.5 million poor families in California do not have access to lawyers when they confront disputes involving education, employment, health care or other needs, according to a report issued Wednesday by a special state bar commission.

The state has increased its spending on legal services for the poor in recent years. But it still spends considerably less than several other major industrial states and has many fewer lawyers available to serve the poor.

California has one lawyer available for every 10,000 poor residents, and spends $13 per eligible person for civil legal services.

By contrast, Minnesota and New Jersey provide $39 per person. Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states that also outspend California.

Total public and private expenditures for civil legal services for California's poor come to $149 million, a significant hike from the 1996 level of $101 million. But completely meeting the need for legal representation among poor people would require $533 million, said San Francisco attorney Jack Londen, past chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice, which issued the report.

"As a practical matter, there can be no access to justice without access to legal assistance," Londen said.

The commission was created in 1997 after a State Bar task force issued a study that said the quality of justice in the state was being seriously undermined by inadequate efforts to address the legal needs of the poor.

"The statistics may seem cold, but it's impossible to remain complacent about this situation after meeting a family made homeless by an illegal eviction, a senior who lost his home to foreclosure from a crooked loan transaction or a domestic violence victim unable to navigate the courts to get a restraining order," said Karen A. Lash, associate dean at USC Law School who co-chairs the commission.

Legal Aid lawyers also provide assistance to children with disabilities who are denied proper care, veterans seeking government benefits and elderly individuals claiming abuse by their caregivers.

The latest census figures show that from 1990 to 2000, the number of Californians living at or below the poverty line grew by nearly 1.1 million -- a 30% increase in the potential caseload for Legal Aid lawyers, the report found.

And the problem may get worse, the report noted. Although California has 12% of the national population, the state accounted for 55% of the growth in poor people across the country between 1990 and 2000, census figures show.

Many of the clients served by Legal Aid lawyers now have jobs -- a notable change from the situation a couple of decades ago, said Bruce Iwasaki, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation. He noted that 46% of poor families in California have at least one full-time worker.

The report found that there have been some improvements in the past five years. In 1999, for the first time, California specifically allotted $10 million for civil legal services for the poor. The money was an attempt to compensate for reduced federal spending on Legal Aid.

In addition, legal self-help centers have been created in every county. And the state has developed a more cost-effective way of delivering legal services "through cutting-edge computer and Internet technology," the report states.

"California has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," said Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who has made improvement of legal services for California's 6 million poor people a priority.

In an interview this week, George said he took heart from the fact that Gov. Gray Davis had initially agreed to increase the state's Access to Justice fund from $10 million to $15 million in the next budget. "But when the economy tanked, it went back to $10 million. Just to maintain it at that level in this economy is an achievement," he said.

George said the need for lawyers for the poor is particularly acute in the family law area -- adoptions, divorces, child custody disputes and domestic violence cases.

"In some areas of the state, both sides have no lawyers in two-thirds of such cases," he said. In other parts of the state, 90% of the cases have a lawyer on only one side, he added.

The state's self-help Web site "is extremely valuable," but in many situations it simply cannot replace an attorney, he said.

George has been pressing corporate lawyers to do more free legal work to fill the gaps. At the annual State Bar convention, he presents awards to private lawyers who have provided particularly effective, free assistance to poor people. One Saturday in Los Angeles, George conducted 10 adoption hearings as part of a pro bono program organized by Los Angeles law firms.

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