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Lawrence McGovern

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Quaint Concept: Justice for All

Posted: 06/23/10 12:45 PM ET

Here -- sigh -- is still another example of politicians not getting it.

Legislative bodies throughout the country are responding to budgetary woes by severely reducing their support of legal services for low-income individuals facing an unwarranted eviction. Or combating rejections of benefits to which they're entitled. Or seeking protection against abuse. Or dealing with other necessities of life issues.

The by-product of this response is an economic under-class that is too frequently seeing human dignity being replaced by human tragedy. Worse, the national stage is being set for far greater budgetary problems in the future and a much larger contingent of people being victimized by the shortsighted responses to the current economic malaise.

A clear example of how saving small financial outlays today will require considerably larger expenditures tomorrow can be found in the southern part of New York State where Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) annually helps roughly 40,000 economically disadvantaged adults and children with legal representation and advice.

But that's only half the story. The other half is that an equal number of individuals are being turned away in their quest for equal protection under the law. And if present trends continue, the "other half" could soon become the other three-fifths or two-thirds.

"It's madness," says Barbara Finkelstein, executive director of the White Plains, N.Y.-based agency. "Economic hardships led in 2009 to the largest annual increase in the number of civil cases being handled in New York. And additional increases are expected in 2010. Given that our legal system only guarantees the right to an attorney in criminal cases, more than two million New Yorkers appeared in New York civil courts without an attorney last year.

"Most proved the adage about the ineffectiveness of being one's own attorney. And the resulting anti-plaintiff decisions produced more abuse, homelessness, hunger, despair and crime. This increases the number of individuals needing costly public assistance and decreases the number able to continue living as income-earning and tax paying contributors to society."

She adds that the difference between the cost of adequately funding legal services offices now and the sums that will be needed to pay for this shortsightedness in the immediate future underscores the senselessness of the budget cuts. For example, the cost of housing a homeless family in Westchester County, where LSHV is headquartered, is $36,000 per year. Restoration of LSHV's funding could spare thousands from homelessness and save the county, New York State, the federal government and taxpayers from all economic classes millions of dollars annually.

Finkelstein and other legal service providers contend that this is not just a question of how America treats its most vulnerable citizens. Instead, they say, it is an opportunity to show that justice for all makes a better America for all of its 300 million citizens.