The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Richard Nixon
Special Message to the Congress Proposing Establishment of a Legal Services Corporation
May 5, 1971

To the Congress of the United States:

In the long, uphill struggle to secure equal fights in America, the Federal program of legal services for the poor is a relative newcomer to the cause. Yet it has already become a workhorse in this effort, pulling briskly and tirelessly at the task as the Nation moves ahead.

The legal services program began six years ago as a small experiment within the Office of Economic Opportunity. It grew swiftly, so rapidly that today more than 2000 lawyers work for the poor in some 900 neighborhood law offices. No less than a million cases a year are now processed by these dedicated attorneys, with each case giving those in need new reason to believe that they too are part of "the system."

A large measure of credit is due the organized bar. Acting in accordance with the highest standards of its profession, it has given admirable and consistent support to the legal services concept. The concept has also had the support of both political parties.

The crux of the program, however, remains in the neighborhood law office. Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help. Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check--each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation's eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.


The Nation has learned many lessons in these six short years. This program has not been without travail. Much of the litigation initiated by legal services has placed it in direct conflict with local and State governments. The program is concerned with social issues and is thus subject to unusually strong political pressures.

Even though surrounded by controversy, this program can provide a most effective mechanism for settling differences and securing justice within the system and not on the streets. For many of our citizens, legal services has reaffirmed faith in our government of laws. However, if we are to preserve the strength of the program, we must make it immune to political pressures and make it a permanent part of our system of justice.

For two years, this administration has studied means of delivering improved, high quality legal services to those in need, as well as the question of what the proper role and structure of the legal services program should be. In 1969, we upgraded the status of legal services, recognizing it as a separate program within the Office of Economic Opportunity. Because of its importance, I also specifically asked the President's Advisory Council on Executive Organization (The Ash Council) to examine the question, and last November the Council recommended that the Government create a special corporation for the program. The role of legal services lawyers was also considered by the recent White House Conference on Youth, and a task force there expressed strong concern that the independence of these attorneys be maintained.

Today, after carefully considering the alternatives, I propose the creation of a separate, nonprofit Legal Services Corporation. The legislation being sent to the Congress to accomplish this has three major objectives: 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.


True independence for a corporation created by the Government demands a governing body drawn from a wide spectrum and safeguarded against partisan interference after its appointment. I believe that we can best meet these requirements by appointing the board of directors for the Legal Services Corporation on the following bases:
--The members of the board should be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
--The board should consist of eleven members, no more than six of whom may be of the same political party.
--A majority should be members of the bar of the highest court of a jurisdiction, and none should be a full-time employee of the United States.
--Members should be appointed for three-year terms and serve no longer than nine years consecutively.
--The board chairman should be elected by the members from among their number and serve a term of one year.
--No board member should be involuntarily removed except by a vote of at least seven members, and only for reasons of malfeasance, persistent neglect, or inability to perform. Political pressures cannot be a basis for removal.

These provisions, all painstakingly designed to insulate the board from outside pressures, find an apt precedent in the corporation created four years ago to promote freedom and initiative in noncommercial broadcasting. In establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Congress was once again dealing with a sensitive area of our national life, and it chose much the same course that I am recommending today.

The primary mission of the Legal Services Corporation should be the review and approval of applications for funds submitted by neighborhood law offices, special units of private law firms, and other attorneys who seek to provide legal assistance to the poor. The decision in the case of each individual grant or contract should be made by the corporation's president-an official employed by the board--based upon guidelines established by the board.

To advise the board of the Legal Services Corporation, I propose that an advisory council also be established with its membership including eligible poor clients and representatives of the organized bar.

As a further means of assuring its independence, I recommend that grants made by the corporation to neighborhood offices and other recipients not be subject to veto by governmental officials. It is important, however, that State and local officials be given ample notice of new grants. Therefore, I propose that the corporation be required to notify the Chief Executive Officer of the State, Commonwealth, District of Columbia or possession at least 30 days prior to approving a grant or contract for that area, so that full consideration could be given to the views of that executive. Thus the legitimate concerns of the jurisdiction involved could be taken into account before proceeding, but the corporation would retain its independence.

As yet another guarantee of that independence, and also to assure continuity and facilitate long-range planning, I propose that funding by the Congress be appropriated on a three-year basis.


While it is important to insulate the corporate structure so that public funds can be properly channeled into the field, it is even more important that the lawyers on the receiving end be able to use the money ethically, wisely and without unnecessary or encumbering restrictions.

The legal problems of the poor are of sufficient scope that we should not restrict the right of their attorneys to bring any type of civil suit. Only in this manner can we maintain the integrity of the adversary process and fully protect the attorney client relationship so central to our judicial process.

At the same time, it would be a waste of our resources and a dilution of the legal services program if these same lawyers were also to become involved in criminal suits, since legal representation in criminal cases is already available to the poor under many other programs. Counsel for the indigent has been held by the Supreme Court to be a constitutional requirement in felony cases. States now provide for such counsel, and the Federal Government has made substantial sums of money available for criminal representation. Thus I propose that legal services lawyers be prohibited from criminal representation.

For this same reason, legal services attorneys who are given full-time grants or contracts should devote their entire professional efforts to representation of eligible clients, and should not be permitted to engage in the outside practice of law. Certain lobbying activities, as well as partisan political action, should also be proscribed. The latter two activities would be another dilution of resources, and would have the further disadvantage of placing the Legal Services Corporation itself squarely in the political arena, where it does not belong--and thus inviting those political pressures from which its independence is designed to insulate it. On the other hand, these limitations should not impair the right of the legal services attorney to prepare model legislation or to respond to the inquiries of legislators. Such actions are traditionally within the scope of the attorney's right to represent a client and must be preserved.


In discussing the broad contours of this program, we must not overlook the challenges ahead. The Nation can be proud that we have come so far already. Under this administration alone, the legal services caseload has increased some 97%--from approximately 610,000 cases in fiscal year 1969 to an estimated 1,200,000 cases in fiscal year 1971--and the budget allocations have increased during this period by approximately one-third. Yet today, perhaps four out of every five legal problems of the poor still go unattended. The challenge to us is thus a significant one, and if we are to succeed in so delicate an undertaking we must devise a program which will have the full support not only of the Congress and the executive branch, but of the people as well.

The full financial support of the government is clearly needed in this endeavor. I propose that upon the date of incorporation, all of the funds then appropriated for legal services activities in the Office of Economic Opportunity, including those for research and training, be transferred to the Legal Services Corporation, so that it can undertake existing Office of Economic Opportunity obligations.

To help us broaden the attack on our unmet needs, I am also proposing two new initiatives:
--First, I propose that specific authorization be given for grants to individual lawyers. This will increase the opportunity for the private bar to participate in legal services and will enable the corporation to channel greater resources into rural areas.
--Second, I propose that the Legal Services Corporation be authorized to identify the principal legal problems of the poor involving the Federal Government and then work with appropriate governmental agencies in trying to solve them. Hopefully, this effort might in many cases eliminate the need for poor persons to seek redress in our overcrowded courts. It would also conserve the resources of the corporation without denying to any lawyer the right to bring a suit which he deems necessary.

The Federal program of providing legal pay for them is a dramatic symbol of this services to Americans otherwise unable to Nation's commitment to the concept of equal justice. It is a program both new and unparalleled by any other system of justice in the world. I urge the Congress to join with me in adopting this proposal to give it new strength for the future.

The White House
May 5, 1971

Citation: Richard Nixon: "Special Message to the Congress Proposing Establishment of a Legal Services Corporation", May 5, 1971. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
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