Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One roadblock to meaningful representation for the poor falls -- LSC halts enforcement of rule against clients recovering statutory attorney fees

The Legal Services Corporation will no longer enforce the rule that barred clients represented by legal services agencies from collecting attorney fees. Until this recent move, clients represented by private sector lawyers could recover attorney fees provided by statute, but clients represented by legal services lawyers were barred from recovering these fees. Any legal services agency that collected attorney fees from a defendant risked losing its LSC funding.

Here's the LSC's update on the new nonenforcement policy on fee restrictions:

"The Fiscal Year 2010 appropriation for LSC lifts the statutory prohibition on the recovery of attorneys' fees by LSC-funded programs. In light of that action, LSC's Board of Directors voted on December 15 to suspend enforcement of LSC's regulation prohibiting grantees from claiming, collecting or retaining attorneys' fees. The suspension went into effect December 16, when the President signed the appropriations bill."

The attorney fee rule is one of a serious of restrictions that has handcuffed attorneys representing the poor. Other restrictions include a prohibition on LSC funded groups initiating class action litigation or participating in lobbying efforts on behalf of their clients. Meanwhile, funding for legal services agencies has been gutted due to Republican led efforts since the mid-1990's.

The restrictions and funding cuts have devastated the ability of legal services organizations to advocate for their low-income clients.

For low-income tenants who rely on local legal aid organizations, nonenforcement of the fee rule is an extremely important first step toward restoring meaningful access to the courts. The remaining restrictions should be removed promptly, and funding for legal services organizations should be dramatically increased.

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