Gazette photo by LAWRENCE PIERCE
Frank Gorman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Charleston, waits for a client before a hearing with Social Security administrators. Federal budget cuts and restrictions on the types of cases legal aid lawyers can take, have made it harder for poor people to get help in fighting welfare-reform changes.
By Rusty Marks
In the year or two leading up to the current sweeping changes in welfare regulations, federal officials were slashing budgets and passing laws making it harder for welfare recipients to fight the system.
"It was an all-out attack on the poor from all angles," said Frank Gorman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Charleston. "It was very thorough."
The Legal Aid Society is one of dozens of similar organizations around the country that use federal money to help provide legal services to the poor. But in recent years, federal lawmakers have made big cuts in legal aid budgets and severely restricted the kinds of cases they can handle.
In 1995, according to Legal Aid attorney Bruce Perrone, the federal budget cut national funding for legal aid by 30 percent in what was to be the complete three-year phase-out of legal aid. Congress has so far laid off on cuts for the second and third years of the proposed budget elimination, but the U.S. House of Representatives is now considering a further 50 percent legal aid cut.
At the same time, lawmakers were concocting laws that severely restricted the cases legal aid lawyers could take. "One of the restrictions was we could not challenge welfare reform," Perrone said. Legal aid lawyers are now also banned from handling class-action lawsuits.
Perrone said class-action lawsuits have traditionally been a very small portion of the cases legal aid lawyers have taken. Nevertheless, legal observers see their elimination as a staggering blow to the poor and vulnerable.
"Class-action lawsuits are the most efficient way to receive relief without tying up the court system interminably with individual cases," said Hilary Chiz, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. "Legal service organizations have effectively had their hands tied by these provisions."
Legal aid lawyers can still represent welfare recipients individually, but individual suits don't have the punch of class-action cases, and large numbers of individual suits would tie up the courts for years. In rural states like West Virginia, Chiz doubts many welfare recipients who feel they've been wronged would make the trip to a city to file a lawsuit.
What Congress has done is pass sweeping new legislation eliminating people from welfare programs while making sure those eliminated can't do anything about it, Chiz said.
But Perrone said the legal aid restrictions are apparently constitutional. "They haven't said, 'We're not going to allow you to sue,'" he said.
"They're saying, 'We won't give you a free lawyer to sue.'
"It worries me, but that's what's been done."
But those who can't afford to hire a lawyer to fight welfare reform may not be completely out of luck. A little over a year ago, a group of lawyers set up Mountain State Justice, which does legal work similar to what Legal Aid did, but without many of the restrictions.
"They were putting so much bureaucracy on Legal Aid that they couldn't practice law," said Dan Hedges, one of four Mountain State Justice attorneys.
Mountain State Justice could conceivably take the kind of cases legal aid lawyers can no longer take.
"To a large extent, it's the same kind of cases, but without the bureaucracy," Hedges said.