Legal services for the poor suffer hard times

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 26, 2004

Declining resources and increasing caseload are the twin realities faced by the Selma regional office of Legal Services Corp. of Alabama.

The office is responsible for providing legal services to the poor in a seven county area, including Dallas. They also provide such services as

the Judicare program, which engages private lawyers to assist clients at reduced rates.

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Alabama is 51st in funding for legal services – behind Puerto Rico – according to Melissa Pershing, executive director of Legal Services Alabama, a new umbrella group for legal services offices throughout the state, including Selma. Pershing said that a national study has shown that one in four poor persons nationally has a legal problem each year, and that services offered through legal services and pro bono court-appointed lawyers are meeting only about one-fourth of the need.

Carolyn Gaines-Varner, managing attorney of the Selma office, and Geraldine Turner-Wofford, senior staff attorney, note with regret the steady decline in combined federal and state funding since the Reagan Administration took office in 1981.

At the beginning of the program in the 1970s their coffers were full and they had a full complement of attorneys on staff to take care of the many legal needs of those least able to afford a lawyer. Legal services only handles civil cases; court-appointed attorneys handle criminal matters that qualify in state courts. The federal courts have a public defender program.

Over the years the staff of attorneys has been reduced from 15 to four. They handle about 200 cases on a regular basis but judge that the need is far greater.

The consequences of not providing basic legal services to families living on the margin can be grave. The kinds of cases that the Selma office typically deals with include domestic abuse (which is mandated and funded through separate state channels), issues relating to Social Security, Supplementary Security Income, housing, evictions, debt, bankruptcies, rural land problems, boundary disputes, deeds and wills.

“Legal services is a safety net,” said Pershing, “that keeps people from falling through the cracks, with great costs to all of us.”

As Gaines-Varner noted, the poor wander aimlessly and helplessly through all sorts of such legal tangles, at great cost to society.

Funding for legal services comes through the federal government, the state and, in some areas, private funding through such means as United Way and grants.

Federal funding, according to Pershing, has remained stable for the past three years, but has not been adjusted for inflation. State funding, however, has suffered dramatic decreases because of the state budget crunch. And for the Selma office, there has not been much success in obtaining private funding – hence, the continuing staff cuts, salary freezes along with other cost-cutting measures.