TWO YEARS AGO I proposed the creation of a Legal Services Corporation as a means of delivering high quality legal assistance to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. The need still exists, and today I am once again asking the Congress to establish this corporation.
I firmly believe that we must provide a mechanism to overcome economic barriers to adequate legal assistance.
Eight years ago a legal services program was initiated as a small experiment within the Office of Economic Opportunity. It grew rapidly, and today more than 2,950 lawyers are assisting the needy in about 900 neighborhood law offices.
We have learned many lessons during this time. We have learned, for instance, that any federally sponsored effort which runs counter to State and local officials is sure to spark controversy. We have learned that Federal programs with noble social aims must be carefully structured to mitigate abuse by those who run them. But more than anything else, we have learned that legal assistance for the poor, when properly provided, is one of the most constructive ways to help them to help themselves. During this period, we have also learned that justice is served far better and differences are settled more rationally within the system than on the streets. Now is the time to make legal services an integral part of our judicial system.
When I asked the Congress in 1971 to create an independent Legal Services Corporation, I said that my proposal had three major objectives. Those same objectives apply to my proposal today:
"First, that the corporation itself be structured and financed so that it will be assured of independence; second, that the lawyers in the program have full freedom to protect the best interests of their clients in keeping with the Canons of Ethics and the high standards of the legal profession; and third, that the Nation be encouraged to continue giving the program the support it needs in order to become a permanent and vital part of the American system of justice."
Many of the features of the new legislation are also similar to those in the 1971 proposal:
--The corporation would be nonprofit and governed by a board of 11 members appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. No more than six members could be of the same political affiliation, and a majority would have to be attorneys.
--The corporation would be authorized to make grants or enter into contracts with individuals, partnerships, firms, organizations, and corporations, as well as with State and local governments for the purpose of providing legal assistance to eligible clients.
--The corporation would be authorized to undertake research on the delivery of legal services and to serve as a clearinghouse for information on such services.
--No funds provided by the corporation could be used with respect to criminal proceedings.
--While engaged in legal assistance activities, attorneys would be barred from participating in political activities and from encouraging or participating in strikes, boycotts, picketing, and various forms of civil disturbance.
In addition to these provisions, the new legislation contains several features which I believe represent an improvement over my 1971 proposal:
--A nine-member advisory council would be established in each State, to be appointed by the Governor or, if he failed to act, by the national board. The State advisory council would maintain a continuing review of all legal service activities within its State and would report any program abuses to the national board.
--Anyone could qualify for legal assistance under the program so long as his income were less than 200 percent of the poverty level and his lack of income did not result from a refusal to seek or accept a job.
--The corporation would also be charged with responsibility for conducting a study of alternative ways of delivering legal services, such as judicare, vouchers, prepaid legal insurance, and contracts with law firms. A report of this study would be prepared and submitted to the President and the Congress no later than June 30, 1974.
I firmly believe that this bill merits the support of all who believe in a legal services program which gives the poor the help they need, which is free and independent of political pressures, and which includes safeguards to ensure that it operates in a responsible manner.
America's system of law now requires equal treatment for all in our courts of criminal justice. It is no less important that equal access be afforded those who seek redress through our civil laws.
We propose no special favors for any group in our society, nor do we seek to mandate the use of the legal system to the exclusion of other social institutions as instruments of social progress. We propose, simply, to protect and preserve a basic right of all Americans.