The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009—Now That’s Stimulus
Hallelujah to this new bill, "The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009." This bill proposes some truly significant changes that would help close the justice gap that divides the wealthy from the middle and aspiring middle class, preventing access to the courts for those in dire need of it. Changes include the following (quoted from the article):
• 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.
• Provides for better governance at LSC. Recent Government Accountability office reports highlighted the need for better corporate governance and oversight. A central feature of the bill is provisions to improve corporate practices.
• Authorizes a grant program from the Department of Education to expand law school clinics.
Hey, every little bit counts, and the recent house vote to increase LSC funding to $390M was symbolically significant as well as indicative of an appreciation for the need to increase access to the courts for low income individuals. But this bill here is truly the good stuff. Note that the increase in funding will get us back to square one, to providing the minimum level of access to adequate, affordable representation.
It is sad that it has taken nearly thirty years to get back to the minimum level of adequacy, but it is also heartening that there are such vocal and dedicated champions on the Hill (and on the blogosphere, and in the communities) building up the demand for this kind of change.
We will definitely keep watch of this bill and keep you updated.