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

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April 16, 2013
Washington, DC

Good afternoon and welcome. I am John Levi, the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation.

Thank you for joining us today.

We are so grateful to the White House for giving us the opportunity to call attention to the growing crisis in civil legal assistance in this country, and to our distinguished panelists and guests, many of whom have traveled from across the country to be here…and who are so knowledgeable about the issues confronting the orderly functioning of the American justice system. 

We are also delighted to welcome so many members of Congress who are taking time from their busy schedules to be here with us today.

We were reminded sadly once again yesterday of  the fragility of our freedoms, and how important it is that we be devoted their defense and to the rule of law.

This is the second forum we have co-hosted with the White House.

The first was convened last April in this very room, where President Obama pledged to be a “fierce advocate” for LSC and civil legal assistance.

And we have since held similar forums at our national quarterly meetings across the country, bringing together leaders of the profession to seek and discuss urgently needed solutions to the widening justice gap—the disparity between the legal needs of low-income people and the capacity of the civil legal assistance system to meet those needs.

As Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who will shortly join our first panel, powerfully observed in a lecture he just gave at New York University Law School:

“...when vast segments of our society are unable to utilize the legal system, we must examine whether we should change the way legal services are delivered and how courts can create more accessible systems.

“If resistance to such change stems from inertia, ‘institutional tranquility,’ or economic self-interest, we are not fulfilling our pledge. A two-tiered justice system denies ‘liberty and justice for all.’

“We can do much better.”

We are here today in that spirit. 

As a country, we find ourselves at a time when the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance is at an all-time high—nearly 20 percent of Americans— while funding for LSC has been cut to just $340 million (with 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 offices have closed, client services have had to be curtailed, and our programs have been forced to turn away probably more than half of the eligible individuals seeking assistance because of a lack of resources. 

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

Some states will experience a reduction in LSC funding even though 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-- a 23% increase. But the overall U.S. poverty population grew by more than 36 percent during that same 10 year period, so California—and any other state with a poverty population increase of less than 36 percent—face a cut in basic field grants from LSC. For California, that cut amounts to nearly 8.3 percent.

And In New York, the poverty population grew by 4.8%, so its basic field grants from LSC will be reduced by 21.7 percent.

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 $42,800. With 15 years’ experience, they can expect a salary of 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, and raising the question: Who will lead the clinics of tomorrow?

With more eligible individuals being turned away by legal aid centers, the number of clients representing themselves in our court system has become staggering.

In the New York state court system in 2011, for example, 2.3 million people appeared without counsel.

Cook County’s Circuit Court currently has about 245,000 pro se litigants, greater in number than the entire rest of the docket.

In Connecticut, 85 percent of divorce cases involved at least one self-represented party, and in New Jersey last year we are told that an incredible 99 percent of all defendants in landlord tenant disputes lacked counsel.

Confronted as we have been with this combination of factors, it is essential that we educate the legal profession about what is happening to low-income Americans as they attempt to access our civil justice system.

As we have sought increased funding—and we are so grateful that the President is seeking $430 million in his 2014 budget request released last week-- we have also looked to better extend the funds we have been given and to encourage the private bar to do more.

We very much appreciate the ABA’s collaboration with us in this effort, not only through its national leadership, but also through its Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, which convened a pro bono summit last year and participated in what was the likely the first ever joint meeting with our Board earlier this year.

LSC grantees are of course required by rule to allocate 12.5 percent of their field grants to promote pro bono work by private attorneys….and pro bono attorneys in LSC-funded matters closed nearly 40 percent more cases last year than they did in 2008.

We also empanelled a distinguished national Pro Bono Task Force, and here in Washington a few months ago, released our far-reaching report outlining ways to expand the number of lawyers who are willing to do pro bono work and better match them with the growing unmet need.

And today, our first panel will focus on the issue of pro bono. It will be moderated by Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School and Vice Chair of our Board who also served as co-chair of LSC’s Pro Bono Task Force.  This panel includes the chief justices of three state supreme courts and other legal experts and bar leaders from across the country.  Martha will introduce the panel.

A second panel, moderated by LSC’s outstanding President Jim Sandman, will focus on the broader and more effective use of technology to help improve pro bono and to better assist those who must represent themselves as they navigate the court system. 
Jim, who came to LSC after a distinguished career as longtime managing partner of the Arnold and Porter law firm and general counsel of the DC school system, will introduce this panel, which includes experts who help develop and use innovative technology to enhance the reach of civil legal aid.

Through our Technology Initiative Grants program, LSC has funded more than 525 tech projects in the past decade.

And these grants have helped our programs build a network of websites from coast-to-coast, delivering a wealth of legal information, self-help videos and automated forms to assist low-income individuals with their legal needs.

Many of these innovations grew out of a ground-breaking technology summit that LSC held in 1998. 

LSC has just concluded a second such summit, and we should be hearing about some of the innovations developed there during the second panel.

We are here today because we know, as the Chief said,  “we can do much better.”  We have no choice!
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.

Our justice system, perhaps even our democracy, would not long survive such a crisis of confidence, and we have a responsibility to future generations to make sure that the justice system we hand them remains true to our founding values.

As President Obama so eloquently said in his second inaugural address:  “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity….You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but also with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”
Equal access to justice is one of those ancient values and enduring ideals….and we must be committed to its full realization.

In addition to our wonderful panelists, we will be privileged today to hear from four distinguished speakers who certainly understand what is at stake—the Vice President of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States, a Senior Advisor to the President, and, later at our reception, the Deputy White House Counsel.

Thank you very much.