“Access to justice is every person’s right!” At least that’s what it says on the website of the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit. But what might seem to be an inalienable right is actually in a heap of trouble. The Detroit Free Press reported last Monday that due to population shifts in the number of people living below the poverty line in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties in the 2001 census, the federal government will be cutting funds for legal aid offices in southeastern Michigan.

The budget cuts will be taking effect this spring, closing both the Oakland-Livingston Legal Aid office in Pontiac and Lakeshore Legal Aid office in Clinton Township – both of which served thousands of clients last year. The Wayne County-based Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit will be taking over operations in Oakland and Macomb counties. This is an unfortunate circumstance for many poor people who need access to legal representation for cases ranging from anything from divorces to landlord-tenant disputes.

These cuts should be reversed for a number of reasons. First of all, there is a certain importance to legal representation for the poor – people who otherwise cannot afford an attorney to assist them in legal matters. Many times people, poor and wealthy alike, do not know their basic rights. The problem becomes particularly acute when one cannot afford a lawyer and this gap is one that is easily filled by public legal aid offices.

The legal services available for low-income residents and families are already insufficient; legal aid offices are already understaffed and overworked. The executive director of the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit, Deierdre Weir, was quoted as saying that her agency has no possibility of providing the level of service that Oakland and Macomb Country clients have become accustomed to and Oakland County Circuit Chief Judge Joan Young has also speculated that such circumstances could affect the outcome of many cases. These facts in themselves should give pause to the Legal Services Corp., the federal agency in charge of distributing money to legal aid services, before it goes ahead with the planned $2 million cut.

The Legal Aid and Defender Association provides many services, including homelessness prevention, legal counseling for teen pregnancy, a legal education speakers bureau and legal counseling for senior citizens. These services are essential to lower-income communities, because these communities are more often subjected to eviction threats, higher rates of teen pregnancy and trouble with admittance to nursing homes.

Funding cuts for public legal services would be a great disservice to lower-income Michigan residents, especially when such cuts will reduce services to less than half of what is currently available. If necessary, the state should find ways to compensate for the federal government’s failure.

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