In support of legal services

Fund-raising campaign deserves help to meet a staggering need


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Several issues ago, this column highlighted the folly in the proposed Trump budget of seeking to zero out the budget line item for the Legal Services Corp., a tiny part of the federal budget that supports funding for pro bono services to poor people throughout the country, providing them with representation in court.

A similar effort in the 1980s under President Reagan was successfully rebuffed by Congress after the leadership of New Hampshire’s senator, Warren Rudman, resulted in the administration’s gaining an understanding for the need for and value of the Corporation for Legal Services.

This year, it is hoped that members of Congress will understand the value and rebuff these efforts as well.

All of this was highlighted in Manchester on May 9, during the “New Hampshire Campaign for Legal Services” kickoff breakfast in Manchester. The breakfast and the campaign are chaired by veteran New Hampshire attorney Jack Sanders and Northeast Delta Dental general counsel Erica Bodwell.

The campaign is an effort to bring together New Hampshire’s business, legal and philanthropic communities to support two organizations, the Legal Advice and Referral Center and NH Legal Assistance.

These two organizations serve the needs of those who are unable to afford the relatively high cost of legal services required to be represented in the court system. The campaign promotes awareness of civil legal aid, which is non-criminal-case legal aid for people who have nowhere else to obtain representation. NH Legal Assistance provides that kind of assistance through offices located at various locations in New Hampshire, while the Legal Advice and Referral Center refers those in need to volunteer private attorneys willing to take on such assignments.

Legal assistance for those in the civil legal system is at an all-time low when it comes to public funding, which is the reason that the campaign seeks to raise $350,000 this year to provide help to the three organizations.

At the breakfast, the distinction between the “right-to-counsel” found in the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which assures criminal defendants legal representation paid for by the state, and representation in civil cases, in matters such as evictions, divorce, adoption, custody, consumer rights, employment disputes and seeking public assistance, was made effectively. Statistics were provided demonstrating that the general public is overwhelmingly unaware that those in civil proceedings are not entitled to an attorney. What follows from the lack of right to counsel in civil cases is that millions of people in the United States every year show up in court unprepared, unaware of the process or their rights, and seeking to represent themselves, “pro se,” since they often have no other option.

This situation clogs the courts with cases whose litigants are either unequally paired or in which they make uninformed arguments. Also, given the lack of training of those who have to appear “pro se,” these people often are unable to receive justice because they are not capably represented, no matter how hard judges try to make the hearing fair.

James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corp. and himself a distinguished Washington attorney, addressed the breakfast and eloquently stated the need for support. He was hopeful that the value of the Legal Services Corp. to real people with real problems is known to members of Congress, and the misimpression held by many conservative politicians that it somehow just funds liberal activists, has been dispelled, and funding would continue. However, that is a message that needs to be brought home to all representatives on the state as well as federal level.

At the breakfast, the annual John Tobin Award, named after the long-time head of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, was presented to newly appointed NH Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, who for years headed the effort to raise funds for proper representation of the indigent, and is aware of the need, now that he heads the NH Department of Justice.

All of this pointed out the need for two actions.

First, to urge our representatives in Congress to preserve funding for the Legal Services Corp. Second, contributions to the Campaign for Legal Services will allow all New Hampshire citizens to have appropriate representation. Members of the New Hampshire bar have been heroic in taking on such cases, but the need is staggering. Those wishing to support the effort should visit nh-cls.org, where donations can be made in order that, in a real sense, there will be “liberty, and justice for all.”

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

 

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