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ABA House of Delegates

 

ABA House of Delegates

Prepared Statement by Legal Services Corporation Board Chairman John G. Levi

August 13, 2013
San Francisco, CA

Good morning.  Thank you Bob for that gracious introduction, and for the invitation to speak to the ABA’s House of Delegates this year.

I also want to thank my fellow Chicagoan, out-going ABA president Laurel Bellows, for a year of wonderfully inspired leadership.

And I welcome Jim Silkenat as he assumes the ABA Presidency, thank him for his compelling remarks about LSC yesterday, and look forward to collaborating with him.

It is a privilege for me, the 10th Chair of the LSC Board of Directors, to speak to the distinguished policy-making body of the ABA, an organization that has been LSC’s indispensable ally and partner throughout its history.

And I appear here today as LSC is poised to mark a significant milestone next year—its 40th anniversary.

Formed in 1974 as one of the last acts of the Nixon administration, LSC was created “to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation” and “to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.

In pursuing this mission, LSC has worked closely with the ABA through its SCLAID committee, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the Center for Pro Bono, the Governmental Affairs Office and LSC has benefited greatly from ABA Days, when you bring lawyers from around the country to Washington to seek adequate funding of LSC.

\We at LSC are so very grateful.

Let me update you on important developments at LSC since I spoke to this House last year.
 
LSC’s national Pro Bono Task Force of more than 60 distinguished leaders of the profession, including many from the ABA, released its far-reaching recommendations to better match and expand the available lawyer talent with the growing unmet need, and we are busy implementing them.

Co-led by our and your remarkable Robert Grey, these implementing committees are working on the creation of a professional association specifically for pro bono managers at LSC grantees, the creation of a pro bono incubation fund, development of pro bono tool kits, and  rules changes and incentives that would make it easier for and encourage lawyers across the country to provide pro bono service.

The Task Force asked LSC to re-examine its own Private Attorney Involvement Rule, and the LSC Board authorized two public rule-making workshops to do just that.

The first workshop took place a few weeks ago in Denver and the second will be in Washington next month.

The LSC Board also held our first ever joint meeting with the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service at our January Board meeting this year and we plan to meet together again this coming January.

Early in its tenure in 2011, our LSC Board created a special Task Force on Fiscal Oversight to help LSC ensure that its oversight of and assistance to its grantees met the highest standards.

In connection with that, in 2012 LSC hired our first ever Vice President for Grants Management who is streamlining and integrating LSC’s approach to fiscal, regulatory, and programmatic oversight and review of our grantees.

LSC also hired its first ever chief development officer in 2013 to help LSC secure new, national funding for initiatives that complement direct-service funding received through the appropriations process, and to create a legacy of giving to LSC on the occasion of our 40th anniversary.

We are happy to say that through the efforts of LSC’s terrific President, Jim Sandman, we have already secured some significant private funding for research into ways to better gather and use data, and we look forward to further enhancing LSC’s research capabilities.

LSC also convened its second-ever Technology Summit.  Many of the innovations now prevalent in our civil justice system grew out of our first Tech Summit in 1998, and similar breakthroughs are already emerging from this most recent Summit.

One particularly promising idea is to create a single point of entry in each state for people seeking help with a civil legal problem. This portal would use an automated process to refer each requester to the lowest-cost service likely to produce a satisfactory result in his or her case.

This is way above my pay grade, but our Tech folks tell me this automated process is ultimately informed by a sophisticated “triage” algorithm continually updated for each state.

Powerful mobile apps are also being developed to automatically remind clients of appointments and for pro bono attorneys by creating mobile guides and case management systems for them.

Since we last met, LSC has also continued its new practice of holding panel discussions on increasing access to justice at its quarterly board meetings across the country involving leaders of the judiciary and the bar in the region.  And LSC co-sponsored a second White House Forum on civil legal assistance this past Spring.

As was just announced here a few days ago together with the ABA, LSC will be collaborating on a Veterans Administration pilot program to help reduce the veterans’ benefits claims backlog, and to assist unrepresented veterans in preparing their claims for disability pay. This initiative will augment the many other significant projects and web sites our LSC grantees have created to assist our nation’s low-income veterans and their families.

All of this has unfolded, as you know, against a backdrop of growing need and fiscal challenge confronting our country.

In the wake of the recent recession, we find ourselves at a time when the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance is at an all-time high – nearly 20% of Americans – while funding for LSC has been cut to just $341 million (after sequestration) this year – an all- time low in inflation-adjusted dollars.

This decline in funding has had grim results — more than a thousand positions at LSC- funded programs have been eliminated in the last two years, nearly 30, mostly rural, offices have closed, and our programs have been forced to turn away half or more of the eligible individuals seeking assistance because of lack of resources.

The shifts in the national poverty population among the various states, will make meeting the legal needs of that significant population even more difficult in many parts of the country.

Some states are experiencing a reduction in LSC funding even thought their poverty rates have actually increased because funding allocations by law are based on each state’s share of the total national poverty population.

For example, the census data that LSC relies on shows that between 2000 and 2010 California’s poverty population grew by more than a million people — a 23% jump.  But the overall U.S. poverty population increased by more than 36% during that same 10 year period, so California — and any other state with a poverty population increase of less than 36% — will suffer a cut in basic field grants from LSC. For California, that cut amounts to nearly 9%.

In New York, the poverty population grew by 4.8%, so by formula, its basic field grants from LSC this year have been reduced by over 20%.

The chronic underfunding of legal aid has also resulted in civil legal aid lawyers being the lowest paid group in the entire legal profession, with a median starting salary of just under $43,000.  With 15 years’ experience, they can expect to make about $65,000.

Modest compensation is not only a burden on the dedicated professionals who staff legal aid offices, but it is also a leadership challenge to the legal aid community, threatening the ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest.
 
As more low-income Americans are turned away by overwhelmed legal aid centers, already overburdened court systems must deal with increasing numbers of individuals who are forced to represent themselves.

On the federal level in 2012 — excluding pro se prisoner filings — there were more than 170,000 pro se filings in the bankruptcy, district and appellate courts.

In New York state in 2011, 2.3 million people appeared without counsel.

In Texas in 2011, more than 460,000 parents represented themselves in family law cases.

Here in California, more than 335,000 family court filings involved at least one pro se litigant.

In my hometown of Chicago, the Cook County Circuit Court currently has about 245,000 civil pro se litigants, more than the rest of its docket.

These numbers are shocking to me, as I am sure they are to you.

When we were in law school, statistics like these would have been unimaginable. So…as LSC prepares to mark its 40th anniversary—in Biblical terms, a generation – is this what equal justice should look like?

Just a few weeks ago at our Board meeting in Denver, we were privileged to hear from Colorado’s U.S. Attorney John Walsh, who highlighted why the mission of LSC and civil legal assistance is so important to our country:

“798 years ago last month, the Magna Carta established that no man, even a king – or in our constitutional system, a President – is or should be above the law.  In a sense, the enterprise that all of you are engaged in is achieving the equal but converse principle – that just as no person should be above the law, no person should be below it.”

LSC has since its founding been the institutional embodiment of this ideal.  That the ABA has been our unquestioned champion during these four decades also says something about the values of this great organization.

And this is no ordinary value – As Vice President Joe Biden eloquently stated at LSC’s White House forum this past April, equal access to legal representation is "the single right that makes every other right viable."

It is not enough to have a system of laws if millions of our citizens do not have access, or believe they do not have access, to that system.

As lawyer Americans, it is our duty to act, and I call on all of you to make sure that others in our profession and the public at large fully understand the magnitude of the problem and the gravity of its consequences.
 
Justice Lewis Powell, who as ABA President in the 1960s helped prepare the way for LSC by encouraging federal funding of civil legal assistance, understood what was at stake:

"Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building – it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society... It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists ... it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."

Together, we have a responsibility to future generations of Americans to make sure that the justice system we leave to them remains true to our country’s founding values.

My fellow stewards of the American justice system, we look forward to working with you as LSC soon enters its 40th year.  Our message is clear, our mission is sure, and we just cannot let our country down.

Thank you very much.