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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Sep. 18, 200112:00 PM EST

Public supports legal aid funding

by: Gary Blankenship

Given the recent congressional debates over the level and even the continued existence of federally funded legal aid, it might be surprising to learn that Americans strongly support the idea.

There’s even notable backing for some of the more controversial (and now prohibited) aspects of legal aid: filing class action suits and suing the government.

Those are among the findings of a recent national poll conducted by the Washington, D.C., polling firm of Belden Russonello & Stewart for the Open Society Institute, in conjunction with the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association and the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The polling firm’s John Russonello presented the results of the survey at the Bar Board of Governors retreat Aug. 24. In addition to polling 1,200 adults, the firm conducted 10 focus groups around the country to both help determine the questions and add perspective to the results.

The findings were clear, he said: Public griping about lawyers and the legal profession is just “noise” without deep feelings, while there is strong support that all people deserve access to the justice system, even if the government pays for it.

The poll asked people whether they strongly or somewhat agreed or strongly or somewhat disagreed that low-income people should be provided with assistance when they face civil legal problems, Russonello said.

Fifty-five percent strongly agreed that help should be provided and 34 percent somewhat agreed, he said, adding, “From a pollster’s point of view, when you get 55 percent agreeing to anything strongly, it’s very, very unusual.”

The poll followed that up by asking whether government should fund legal aid, given its many other duties. Forty-two percent strongly agree that it should, while 40 percent somewhat agreed, Russonello said.

“The other interesting thing about this is while you have support this high, it was high among all groups in society — Democrats, Republicans, men, women, conservatives, liberals, moderates. We got a majority of everyone in those groups,” he reported.

The poll asked about types of services legal aid should provide and found strong support — in the range of 80 to 90 percent combined of strong or somewhat supportive — for advice, taking cases to court, and negotiating with government.

But more surprising, Russonello said, was when people were asked about providing lawyers to challenge welfare policies, which has been a controversial issue and is something legal aid agencies getting federal funds can’t do. The poll showed 41 percent strongly supported allowing such activity and 30 percent somewhat supported it.

Providing attorneys to allow local groups to challenge government actions they consider harmful — one definition of a class action suit — found 38 strongly supportive and 40 percent somewhat supportive, he said. “One of the things that was very strongly positive was the feeling that people in low-income communities should be able to join together to take legal action against government or corporations,” Russonello said. “They [respondents] said, ‘Why not? This is what it’s all about. These are the people who are the most vulnerable.’”

Not all the news was good. Russonello reported only 36 percent of those polled knew there was a government-funded legal aid program, and only 13 percent had a rough idea of the program’s name.

And only 33 percent think it’s very difficult for the poor to find an attorney when they need one, he continued, adding, “Unless it’s seen as very difficult, the public won’t want to fund it.”

This is partly because of the predominance of lawyer advertising, Russonello said, which creates the impression there are plenty of lawyers for all legal needs. He quoted one focus group participant as saying, “I think if you have a phone, you have a lawyer.”

He added people don’t understand those ads pertain mainly to personal injury cases and that the ads’ promise of no cost if there isn’t a successful outcome doesn’t apply to most of the legal problems facing low-income people. “It’s that kind of perception that tells us they don’t understand how the whole system works,” he said. “It is a perception that we have to deal with.”

In promoting legal aid, supporters must focus on basic values of access for all and the services that are provided to poor people, Russonello said.

“They want to know not who you are and what you do, but what was the outcome,” he said. “People see legal aid as filling a need for single mothers, abused children, and elders, as part of their responsibility to take care of others. [They believe] every person in America should be able to obtain their rights, regardless. Everyone has a right to take their grievance to court.”

Russonello concluded by making four points:

• People overwhelmingly support providing help to poor people with civil legal problems.

• The major obstacle to getting more support is the public’s lack of knowledge about existing programs.

• “Don’t worry about the noise over lawyers and lawsuits. It’s not that persuasive” to the public’s core values of helping the poor.

• “Stick to simple values. Access to justice and helping people who need help are the things that will carry this.

— Reprinted with permission of The Florida Bar News.

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