Legal aid is infrastructure, not welfare: got to have bridges so traffic can move

Word has come that the next federal budget will cut or eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Legal Services Corporation is the largest funder of legal services for the poor in the country.

Does the impetus for cutting legal aid come from a sense that legal aid to the poor is a form of welfare? Does it come from a sense that legal aid funds lawsuits against the wealthy?

That’s the wrong way to look at it. Legal aid, even when given free to the undeserving poor, is not a handout. It’s an investment in infrastructure.

The rule of law is the foundation of the economy and society. And it depends on the justice system.

Our system is complex and getting more so. (“Increasing complexity is the story of human evolution, and the story of how and why law emerged.“)

If poor people do not have effective access to this complex system, two bad things happen. First, the legal entanglements of the poor clog and burden the system. Either controversies don’t get resolved, or people try to fix them without assistance. That makes things worse.

Second, bad outcomes contaminate society. People get soured and distracted from positive, productive pursuits.

North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin perceptively points to domestic affairs: spousal abuse, child abuse, child custody, divorces. Often intervention by the justice system is the only fix in those cases. People helping themselves makes things worse.

That’s domestic relations. The same things can happen with healthcare, housing, veterans’ rights, benefits for the elderly, and any number of other everyday things. The unmet legal needs of poor people in these areas are growing, while funding is already on the decline.

Removing legal aid from the federal budget will make things worse. It will make our system more expensive for everybody, not less. And it will exacerbate negative spirits generally — in a way that drags down the economy, politics, and society at large.

Legal Services Corporation channels funds to local agencies such as Legal Aid of North Carolina. If there’s something wrong with Legal Services in particular, then fix that. But don’t take the resources out of the system.

Legal aid ain’t a handout. It’s bridges and roads.

Traffic has to move. Pay me now, or pay me more later.

 

 

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