Renewed Push to Expand Access to Legal Aid

Mike Moen

MINOT-- The movement to expand affordable legal services is receiving renewed focus, since a U.S. Supreme Court Justice made a public endorsement of the idea.

Conservative-leaning Justice Neil Gorsuch recently wrote an op-ed for USA Today, calling on states to find creative ways for more Americans to get free or affordable legal guidance, especially in non-criminal cases.

Examples include establishing a will or dealing with small-claims issues.

Rich LeMay, executive director for Legal Services of North Dakota, said this kind of advocacy is long overdue.

"Attorneys go to school for this, and quite frankly, some of the attorneys don't have it figured out," LeMay asserted. "It's a lot to expect that a person's gonna be able to do everything the way the court requires."

Even for people who do qualify for legal aid, LeMay said programs like his don't have a wide range of resources to cover every kind of case.

Arizona now allows para-professionals to represent people in court in limited situations, even without a law license. Private attorney groups have raised some concerns that these changes could open the door to unregulated companies preying on people who need help.

Meanwhile, LeMay pointed out Congress could help by adjusting eligibility requirements, so more people could qualify for legal-aid groups that have attorneys on staff.

He contended these groups also need more funding to serve more clients.

"When I started in 1989, Legal Services Corporation, nationally, was funded at $400 million," LeMay explained. "And here we are, 32 years later. And granted, we're getting increases, but we're only at $465 million."

He added public awareness is a big issue. And given all the financial challenges from last year, his group didn't see as many cases as expected.

LeMay suggested people in need of legal advice research any possible assistance options before deciding to represent themselves.