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Federal Funds Veto Imminent Free Legal Aid Threatened

Federal Funds Veto Imminent Free Legal Aid Threatened image Federal Funds Veto Imminent Free Legal Aid Threatened image
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It appears that Presidential Politics may soon reach into Washtenaw County where tliousands of poor people are threatened with a cutoff of free legal aid services. The Washtenaw County Legal Aid Society, one of 270 such nation-wide offices of the now defunct Office of Economie Opportunity (OEO) is currently living on borrowed time as Congress moves to establish the Legal Services Corporation, an independent government corporation to replace the OEO department. Congress is expected to pass the bill this week, whereupon it will be sent to President Nixon for his approval. Speculation has it, however, that Nixon, for political (read: survival) reasons will veto the bill. Though the OEO's funding ended on June 30, the Congress voted an extensión of funding for the legal aid societies through September 30. The President's veto could thus effectively guarantee the doom of such services beyond that date. The effects of a legal services cutoff would be, far reaching in Washtenaw County. According to local Legal Aid Director Michael Bixby, there are anywhere from 50 to 60 thousand poor people in this area, of which about 3,500 or so used legal aid services last year. Legal Aid, which handles civil cases only (not criminal), appoints free attorneys for needy poor people. lts termination will mean either non-representation or the acquisition of expensive attorney fees. HOW IT WORKS The Legal Aid Society, as it currently survives, offers its services free of charge to those individuals and families considered to be at a poverty level by federal standards. For instance, an individual with income of less than $3,000 or a pie with income of less than $3,850 are considered eligible. Tlie income level goes up an additional $700-5800 for each extra person. Welfare income is not considered under these standards. The Washtenaw County ottice at 212 t. Huron is currently handling about 600 cases. The work load is assumed by director Michael Bixby. three other attorneys, and a number of students who work ir. the clinical office. These students, as part of a Law School course, take on ' a limited number of cases under the , supervisión of two attorney-professors. According to Bixby, 13 of the cases being handled deal with divorce and family problems. A quarter involve tenant housing problems. Twenty per cent are of the consumer problem var■ iety, and a good number of the ' remainder involve problems . with administrative red tape; hassles that people might ] have in getting their checks from welfare or social curity, etc. POLITICAL FOREPLAY The story of the political maneuvering goes back to 1971, when President Nixon himself introduced a bilí to set up the Legal Services Corporation. The Bill passed Congress at that time, but in a truly characteristic way was then vetoed bv Nixon because it didn't aive him the power to appoint the proposed 1 1 director; for the corporation. c Last summer, Nixon reintroduced his proposal. However, in subsequent travels through both Houses of Congress, conservatives managed to alter the bill to the point where great restrictions were put on the type of case which legal aid lawyers would be allowed to take, and were also placed on the politica! activities of lawyers. Conservatives in recent years have been outraged by the many legal victories of minorities and political groups aided by liberal and aggressive attornies. Consequently , the present form of .he Legal Services Corporation Bill would prohibit lawyers from handling school desegregation cases, nontherapeutic abortion cases, selective service, desertion, and amnesty cases and class action cases. Legal Aid lawyers themselves would be prohibited from participating in any form of partisan politics, even off duty , and would not be allowed to particípate or to encourage others to particípate in pickets, strikes or boycotts (except pertaining to their own employment situation.) The conservatives are also opposed to the bilí because of the existence of "back-up" centers; a series of twelve or so centers located across the country whichjprovide technical assistance to. local poverty lawyers. Most of these centers specialize in a specifíc legal área, such as housing, welfare, juvenile law, consumer law, and so forth. Bixby notes that "the centers have helped those of us in the field." He adds that for complex cases, the lawyers could turn to the center for assistance, which could come in the form of technical advice, cumulative information, details on related cases, and other means of "back-up" deemed to ease the load on an individual attomey. These centers have been involved in controversial cases however, such as school desegregation cases in the Detroit área, and this probably accounts for much of the conservative opposition to them. According to Bixby, opponents on the right charge that the back-up centers are "hotbeds of radical activity which are stirring up litigation." The new form of the bill thus provides that these centers will cease existence in 1976. ? Liberáis and lawyers, though disturbed by many -. of these new restrictions, still support the bill, feel ing that any form of free legal aid is better than none. j Nixon , meanwhile , is play ing the game caref ully . , With conservative support his last bastion of stren ■ gth in his impeachment fight, Nixon does not want to do anything to further anger or aliénate them. , . Thus, even though the new version of the bill gives j him the power to appoint all of the directors, as he originally wanted, Nixon has threatened to veto it, , and probably will. ) Bixby and other supporters of the legal aid pro gram are hoping that Nixon will reconsider. Curj rently, a petition drive has been launched to inform j . the President of widespread support for legal aid, and other concerned people are also being urged to j quickly write or wire the President. j OTHER LEGAL AID SERVICES I Scattered throughout Ann Arbor, there are a few other forms of free or inexpensive legal aid of , ' a lesser nature available. Some of these are also i having problems. At Model Cities Legal Services, located at 1 22 J N. 4th Ave., Director Gail Powell told the SUN of Model Cities funding difficulties. Shut down from May of last year until last February, the Legal J ' Services department is contracted with the city and j . HEW to run until December 3 1 , and beyond that, ■ the situation is unclear. Currently on a limited J budget, Model Cities is basically providing a refer, . ral service for those who seek legal aid. Only emer gency cases: evictions, tor example, which involve fast court action, are being taken. Many referrals in the past have gone to the Legal Aid Society; with their future now in doubt, Model Cities is having a harder time finding low-cost referrals. Those eligible for Model City services are resiI dents of the Model Cities area. eeoeraphically iefined as nortli of Hurón, south of Summit and the river, west of División and east of Seventh. Also, residents of public or federally financed housing, as well as those persons below the poverty level are also eligible for Model Cities aid. The Free People's Clinic ( 225 E. LiJ berty) has started a free legal advice J' service each Monday niglit from 7:15 i to9:30. According to Joel Welber. )ne of the seven lawyers who are J j nating their time for this service, j. the public turnout in the two ■ months of operation has.been frustratingly low, possibly , . cause few people know of the 1 existence of the service. ' sically, anyone who wishes j. legal advice can come for ■ private consultation on continued on page 22 j - ..... ■ ■ ■ ■ Legal Aid continued from page 5 any legal matter. Though the lawyers will not take on any cases, an attorneyclient privilege is in effect during the discussions. _ Poor students can receive free legal aid from the University's Legal Aid Society, which is basically the same as the Washtenaw county office, except that it is run by University funds, and thus seems to be in no financial difficulty. It is located on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union. Basically, however, the mainstay of free legal service in Washtenaw County is the Legal Aid Society. Bixby is very concerned over the possibility that the Legal Aid Service will come to an end, stranding many clients in mid-case and imposing financial diffïculties on most. Bixby hopes that the office could continue operation without funding, but doesn't quite believe it possible. "I don't know how long we can ask our people to work without pay," he intones. 'Tm not enthusiastic to teil them (the clients), you don't have a lawyer any more."