The War on Poverty and Civil Legal Aid: A Historical Perspective: Panel at the NLADA Annual Meeting

Two panels at the 2014 NLADA annual meeting, held in Alexandria, VA, November 12-15, were devoted to discussing the history and legacy of the War on Poverty legal services programs. The panel The War on Poverty and Civil Legal Aid: A Historical Perspective, organized and moderated by Alan Houseman, brought together three icons of the legal services movement – Earl Johnson, Jr., Edgar Cahn, and Clint Lyons, as well as a representative of a younger generation of legal services advocates, Nalani Fufimori Kaina, Executive Director, Legal Aid Services of Hawaii.

Earl Johnson, Jr., provided an overview of the history of legal services from the nineteenth century, to the creation and development of the OEO-Legal Services Program, to the establishment of the LSC ten year later, until today.

Slide from Earl Johnson's powerpoint presentation, Nov. 14, 2014.

Slide from Earl Johnson’s powerpoint presentation, Nov. 14, 2014.

Johnson ended his presentation with two provocative questions: In 1976, Tom Ehrlich, the first president of the LSC, said in his testimony to the House appropriations committee: “Legal assistance for the poor is no longer part of a war on poverty. Rather that assistance is established as a basic right of citizenship.”

“First, has legal assistance been ‘established as a basic right of citizenship’ in the succeeding nearly four decades?” asked Johnson? “Second, while there no longer is a coordinated “war on poverty” to be a part of, has legal services entirely abandoned its anti-poverty mission and effect during that span?” Johnson answered both questions with a “reluctant no,” and highlighted that we have a long way to until right to counsel will be established as a basic right of citizenship. We are, however, “at least on the road,” he said. To the second question, Johnson emphasized that anti-poverty work remains an important part of the mission of legal services, but that the issues are being framed very differently today than they were during the early days of the OEO-LSP. Today’s emphasis tends to be much more on the means rather than on the ends — what legal tools will legal services lawyers be allowed to employ, what does access to justice mean, and how can the vision of equal access to justice be implemented?

Johnson also shared some information on recent ABA right to counsel initiatives, including the Directory of Law Governing Appointment of Counsel in State Civil  Proceedings, recently released by the ABA in cooperation with the NCCRC.

Edgar Cahn highlighted that the “war on poverty was a way of responding to the racial divide and to the civil rights movement” – it was a way to channel that energy and the tensions into government-supported reform programs. Cahn recalled the segregation of the legal profession at the time, and the importance of the legal services program as a vehicle for young African American lawyers to apprentice as legal professionals. Cahn also reminded the audience that the vision to “amplify the voices” of the poor was a critical component of the war on poverty, a vision that he and Jean Cahn initially outlined in their article The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective 73 Yale L.J. 1317 (1964).

Clint Lyons, inspired by the civil rights movement, began his career in legal services as a Reginald Heber Smith fellow working in Essex County, NJ. Lyons recalled the rampant urban poverty he saw in Newark, NJ, and the rural poverty he was confronted with when he served as deputy director for the regional office in Atlanta in the Office of Legal Services, where he oversaw the expansion of the southeast region. The anti-poverty impact of legal services has been immeasurable, he emphasized.

Nalani Fufimori Kaina highlighted the importance of the history of legal services for today’s generation of legal services advocates. Especially the Reggies had a huge impact, and helped create a body of law that made a difference in the lives of poor people. Once the Reggie program was cut during the Reagan administration, there was a loss of law reform work because there was no longer a body of people who were doing the work. There always was and continues to be tension between those people who are working on the front lines, and those who are doing law reform work, she observed. The ability to do law reform work depends on ability to provide basic legal services. Many legal services attorneys would love to work on law reform, but are pulled in so many directions, and overwhelmed with work to meet basic legal services needs that they don’t have any time and resources left to do more strategic work. This strategic work, however, continues to be critical, and younger generations of anti-poverty advocates need to play an active role in shaping it.

Katharina Hering

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