Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that people accused of a crime deserve the right to a defense lawyer, no matter whether they can afford to pay for one. But there's no such guarantee when it comes to civil disputes — like evictions and child custody cases — even though they have a huge impact on people's lives.
For decades, federal and state governments have pitched in to help. But money pressures mean the system for funding legal aid programs for the poor is headed toward a crisis.
A Legal ER
On a recent morning, one block from city hall in downtown Baltimore, a few dozen people crowd into a waiting room. The light is dim and the mood is downcast, except for a toddler in a pink stroller singing her ABCs.
This isn't a hospital. But it is a kind of emergency room, for people who need help, right away, with all kinds of legal problems.
One of them is Baltimore cab driver Rodney Taylor, who says he's "here at legal aid today to receive some help because I'm trying to get custody of my son." Another is Jasalle Coates, "here because I've been given the runaround about my property." And then there's a middle-aged lady in fashionable black glasses who didn't want to give her name, to protect her brother in a nursing home from possible retaliation.
"I need to see what his rights are," she says, "because he was not given medication, he was not fed, he was soaking wet, he had black eyes. His head was busted. And I feel that was abuse."
At Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, the doors are open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
"Some days," says Joe Rohr, a veteran lawyer at legal aid, "we actually have to close early because of the volume."
He has just come back from the courthouse, where he tried to help a woman who's pregnant and blind keep her gas and electricity service.
"The problem is, we have far more clients coming in than we have available staff to fully represent everyone," Rohr says.
'A State Of Crisis'
Even though Baltimore's population has dropped over the past decade, the number of poor people who need legal advice has gone through the roof — more senior citizens and more homeowners who lost their jobs, lawyers here say. All over the country, legal aid programs have had to be more choosey about the cases they accept.
"The legal services system in the United States today is in a state of crisis," says Jim Sandman, president of the national Legal Services Corp., which gives money to 135 aid programs all over the country.
The traditional funding streams, from Congress and state governments, are under attack. Aside from government dollars, there's another important source of financing for legal aid: interest that collects on trust accounts that lawyers set up for their clients. But because of record low interest rates, that money has hit record lows, too.
Over the past couple of years, Sandman estimates, more than 1,200 people who work for legal aid programs — 1 in 7 — have lost their jobs. Offices in rural Arkansas and North Carolina have closed outright. But Sandman says more than 60 million people now qualify for civil legal aid.
"We're talking about access to justice here," he says. "Access to justice is a fundamental American value. We have a great legal system in the United States, but it's built on the premise that you have a lawyer. And if you don't have a lawyer, the system often doesn't work for you."
One example, Sandman says, is that some programs are so stretched that they've had to draw excruciating lines.
"Imagine that — a woman being abused who comes in to seek a protective order against an abuser who may have a lawyer himself, and she's turned away because there aren't children involved," he says.
Scandals And New Pressures
Congress is debating how much money to give to Legal Services nationwide in the coming year. But former Legal Services officials like Ken Boehm have urged lawmakers to take a closer look before allocating public funds.
"Many of the checks and balances and reforms and methods of accountability you would find in any other government agency just aren't there," says Boehm, who runs the National Legal and Policy Center, which tries to expose corruption in Washington.
He says Legal Services — which operates as a nonprofit group, not a federal agency — has not always been the best shepherd of public money.
"You know, expensive hotels, expensive desserts, expensive travel. Limousine travel by board members to get to meetings by an anti-poverty group is not anybody's idea of good public relations," he adds.
The program in Maryland has had its share of scandal, too. Spokesman Joe Surkiewicz talks about an episode here two years ago: "Our chief financial officer, who's now serving time in prison, stole several million dollars from Legal Aid in a scheme with an outside vender for office supplies," Surkiewicz says. "We've put it behind us; we've completely revamped our financial program and our financial unit."
But the Maryland Legal Aid bureau, which is financially healthier than most, is facing down some new pressures. A state law that funnels a few dollars in fees to legal aid groups every time someone files a civil lawsuit will expire next year.
"That is the source of my very short nights every night, including last night," executive director Wilhelm Joseph says. "I am thinking about 2013 every day."
So much is unsettled, Joseph says. "What will it take to make sure that the powers that be who exercise their discretion understand the need to continue doing the right thing?"
That's a question legal aid leaders all over the country are asking.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.