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In America, people accused of a crime are guaranteed the right to a defense lawyer, even if they can't afford to pay for one. That's been the case since a Supreme Court ruling nearly 50 years ago. But there is no such guarantee when it comes to civil disputes, like evictions and child custody cases, even though they can have a huge effect on people's lives. Federal and state governments have pitched in to help. But the system for funding these legal aid programs for the poor is approaching a crisis. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: One block from city hall in downtown Baltimore, a few dozen people crowd into a waiting room. The light's dim and the mood's downcast, except for a toddler in a pink stroller singing her ABCs.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER, CHILD SINGING)
JOHNSON: This isn't a hospital. But it is a kind of emergency room for people who need help right away with all kinds of legal problems.
RODNEY TAYLOR: My name is Rodney Taylor. And I'm here at legal aid today to receive some help, because I'm trying to get custody of my son.
JASELLE COATES: My name is Jaselle Coates, and I'm coming here because I've been given the runaround about my property.
JOHNSON: And then there's this lady. She didn't want to give her name to protect her brother in a nursing home from possible retaliation.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I need to see what his rights are, and because of - he was not given medication. He was not fed. He was soaking wet. He had black eyes. His head was busted. I feel all this was abuse.
JOHNSON: Here at Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, the doors are open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
JOE ROHR: Some days, we actually have to close early because of the volume.
JOHNSON: Joe Rohr is a lawyer at Legal Aid. He's just come back from the courthouse, where he tried to help a woman who's pregnant and blind keep her gas and electricity service.
ROHR: The problem is we have far more clients coming in than we have available staff to fully represent everyone.
JOHNSON: Even though Baltimore's population has dropped over the past decade, the number of poor people who need legal advice has gone through the roof, more senior citizens and more homeowners who lost their jobs, lawyers here say. All over the country, legal aid programs have had to be more choosy about the cases they accept.
JIM SANDMAN: The legal services system in the United States today is in a state of crisis.
JOHNSON: That's Jim Sandman. He leads the national Legal Services Corporation, which gives money to 135 aid programs all over the country. Congress has cut funding, and so have many states. Aside from government dollars, there's another important source of financing for legal aid: interest that collects on trust accounts that lawyers set up for their clients after clients pay a retainer fee to hire the lawyers. But because of record low interest rates, that money has hit record lows, too.
Over the past couple of years, Sandman estimates, more than 1,200 people who work for legal aid programs, one in seven, have lost their jobs. Offices in rural Arkansas and North Carolina have closed outright. But Sandman says more than 60 million people now qualify for civil legal aid.
SANDMAN: We're talking about access to justice, here. Access to justice is a fundamental American value. We have a great legal system in the United States, but it's built on the premise that you have a lawyer. And if you don't have a lawyer, the system often doesn't work for you.
JOHNSON: One example: Some programs are so stretched, that they've had to draw excruciating lines.
SANDMAN: Imagine that, a woman being abused who comes in to seek a protective order against an abuser who may have a lawyer himself, and she's turned away because there aren't children involved.
JOHNSON: Congress is debating how much money to give to Legal Services nationwide in the coming year. But former Legal Services officials like Ken Boehm have urged lawmakers to take a closer look before they open their wallets.
KEN BOEHM: Many of the checks and balances and reforms and methods of accountability you would find in any other government agency just aren't there.
JOHNSON: Boehm says Legal Services - which operates as a nonprofit group, not a federal agency - has not always been the best shepherd of public money.
BOEHM: Expensive hotels, expensive desserts, expensive travel, limousine travel by board members to get to meetings by an anti-poverty group is not anybody's idea of good public relations.
JOHNSON: The program in Maryland has had its share of scandal, too. Spokesman Joe Surkiewicz talks about an episode here two years ago.
JOE SURKIEWICZ: Our chief financial officer who's now serving time in prison stole several million dollars from Legal Aid in a scheme with an outside vender for office supplies. We've put it behind us. We've completely revamped our financial program and our financial unit.
JOHNSON: But the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, which is financially healthier than most, is facing down some new pressures. A state law that funnels a few dollars in fees to legal aid groups every time someone files a civil lawsuit will expire next year.
Executive director Wilhelm Joseph.
WILHELM JOSEPH: And that is, the source of my very short nights every night, including last night. I am thinking about 2013 every day.
JOHNSON: So much is unsettled, Joseph says.
JOSEPH: What will it take to make sure that the powers that be who exercise their discretion understand the need to continue doing the right thing?
JOHNSON: That's a question legal aid leaders all over the country are asking.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News.