HERE'S A WARM, FUZZY STORY ABOUT A POOR person getting justice. Earlier this year, Anthony Silva, who lives in a Central District housing project, fought off an unfair eviction notice from the Seattle Housing Authority. The Northwest Justice Project (NWJP), which advocates for poor people, argued that the Housing Authority had evicted Silva for behavior stemming from his mental disability, and that they had done so without proper notice. NWJP won the case in court, and Silva--who lives on a fixed income--got to keep his apartment.

Here's the harsh reality check: For every Anthony Silva, there are four low-income Washingtonians who don't get their day in court.

Indeed, the Washington State Bar Association estimates that when it comes to civil matters, including landlord-tenant disputes, consumer fraud claims, divorce, and public assistance disputes, low-income people have a hard time attaining even the most basic legal services--70 percent of an estimated 430,000 "instances of need" went unmet last year by Washington's small network of legal aid providers.

A 1998 study conducted by the Bar Association presents some grim analysis. "Washington state's equal justice delivery system is operating substantially below critical mass, is chronically underfunded, and is seriously overloaded due to high levels of client demand and correspondingly inadequate capacity to meet this demand," says the report. And it doesn't look like things are going to improve anytime soon.

Just last month, the state legislature turned down a request for an additional $10 million in funding. Despite hard-core lobbying efforts, the state's legal aid programs were told to make due with the same budget that was inadequate last year--$6.8 million for the biennium. "We did not come up high enough on the important needs list," says Lucy Isaki, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, "so we got short changed."

That lack of local enthusiasm is shared by lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Legal aid took a big hit in funding during the Gingrich revolution, when the federal budget for legal help to the poor was slashed 33 percent. As a result, Washington state lost $2.3 million annually, which forced seven local legal aid offices to close and nearly half of the state's 200 legal aid attorneys to lose their jobs. (The total loss since 1995, estimates the Bar Association, is $9 million.) Federal funding has remained far below pre-Gingrich levels for the remainder of the decade.

So, while Utne Reader pets like PBS and the NEA have gotten all the media attention during the past few years of Republican budget slashing, a less visible problem has been festering: An entire class of citizens--400,000 low-income households in Washington--can't afford their guaranteed right to a day in court. In King County, which has the highest concentration of poor people in the state, the problem is most acute. According to the Bar Association, King County has only one legal aid attorney for every 7,800 legal conflicts. And while the low-income population in Washington has increased 78 percent over the past two decades, the number of attorneys serving them has dropped 23 percent.

"Federal funding is up in the air," says Tim Treanor, spokesman for the Equal Justice Coalition. "Funding from the state legislature is flat. Combine that with the growing low-income population, and you've got a real access-to-justice crisis in this state."

Legal advocacy for the poor is provided in two ways. Public defenders look after criminal matters (where the right to an attorney is guaranteed) and legal aid services provide defense in civil cases (where the right to an attorney is not guaranteed). There are six legal aid groups in King County. The largest are Columbia Legal Services, funded by state dollars, and the Northwest Justice Project, funded by the decreasing federal funds. With $8 million and $4 million budgets respectively, they staff a total of 14 attorneys in King County. The county's smaller services--like the Legal Action Center--operate on budgets in the $300,000 range and sport much smaller staffs.

With so few attorneys, these law offices make some tough choices regarding which cases to accept. Isaki, of the Equal Justice Coalition, says, "The tragedy of this crisis is we're just doing triage. We turn all the others away, and you don't know what cracks those people are falling through. You don't know what happens to them."

"The numbers are so vast," says NWJP attorney Sara Ainsworth, "we have to pick the most serious cases. We aren't being lawyers for poor people, we're just being a safety net." Ainsworth says NWJP tends to focus on divorce cases that involve domestic violence or child abuse, public assistance cases where people are about to lose benefits, and housing cases where people are being evicted.

Bob Stalker, deputy director at Columbia Legal Services, says his office takes a similar approach. "The cases we take almost always involve crisis-mode issues--like domestic violence."

Certainly, it's good news that NWJP and Columbia are able to meet the emergency legal needs of low-income people. But since there is little help on "garden variety" justice, low-income people are priced out of court. A retainer fee for a simple divorce case runs around $2,500. Child custody cases can cost as much as $50,000. Simple landlord-tenant disputes start at $5,000. "There are lots of people with difficult family issues--ordinary custody disputes--that we just don't have room for," Stalker says. "Nothing could be more important to the parent involved than the custody of their child, but we just can't help."

In addition to turning away run-of-the-mill cases, federal and state regulations prevent legal aid providers like NWJP and Columbia from taking on certain types of lawsuits. Congress--convinced that legal aid was doing the bidding of liberal special-interest groups--mandated that federally funded legal offices could not handle class-action suits, argue on behalf of prisoners, or challenge welfare reform laws. They also can't represent illegal immigrants or represent people evicted from public housing who are simultaneously facing drug charges. Lawmakers in Olympia have attached similar restrictions to state funding.

The only hope for increased funding at this point appears to lie with the feds, who currently kick out about $300 million to legal aid services across the country. The debate over funding begins in Congress next week. And with powerful Republicans like Dick Armey and Tom DeLay lining up against legal services programs, things don't look so great. "The House might cut funding in half," says Mauricio Vivero, the lead lobbyist for legal aid. "The bottom line is we cannot look to the federal government for a massive increase."

Support The Stranger