Early Major Accomplishments

As its designers had intended, the legal services program soon had a significant impact on the laws that affected the rights of low-income Americans. Legal services attorneys won major cases in state and federal appellate courts and in the U.S. Supreme Court that recognized the constitutional rights of the poor and interpreted and enforced statutes in ways that protected their interests. Programs engaged in advocacy before legislative bodies that gave the poor a voice in forums where no one had previously spoken on their behalf, let alone listened to their side of the issues. Legal services advocates appeared before administrative agencies to ensure effective implementation of state and federal laws and to stimulate development and adoption of regulations and policies that had a favorable impact on the poor. Equally important, programs represented individual poor clients before lower courts and administrative bodies and helped them enforce their legal rights and take advantage of opportunities to improve their employment status, public benefits and other income supports, education, housing, health, and general living conditions.

Legal services attorneys win landmark decisions

Legal services attorneys won landmark decisions, such as Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 638 (1969), which ensured that welfare recipients were not arbitrarily denied benefits, and Goldberg v. Kelley, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), which led to a transformation in the use of the concept of due process. These seminal cases were hardly the only cases brought to the Supreme Court by legal services attorneys. A study by Professor Susan Lawrence reviewed the 119 Supreme Court cases between 1966 and 1974 that were brought by legal services attorneys. Legal services attorneys secured victory in 62 percent of those cases, second only to the record of the Solicitor General of the United States. 3

Creative advocacy by legal services lawyers expanded common law theories that revolutionized the law protecting poor tenants and consumers, including innovative concepts, such as retaliatory eviction and implied warranty of habitability. Legal services attorneys also worked to enforce rights that existed in theory but were honored only in the breach and to ensure that federal law enacted to benefit the poor was actually enforced on behalf of their intended beneficiaries. Cases like King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968), radically changed poverty law by providing remedies in federal and state courts against those who administered the federal welfare program Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the Food Stamp Program, public housing, and other public benefit programs.

Legal services lawyers active behind-the-scenes on legislation and regulations

Legal services lawyers also played critical behind-the-scenes roles in enacting or modifying federal, state, and local legislation. Legal services advocates significantly influenced the enactment of the Food Stamp Program, the Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and they were instrumental in making changes to key federal housing legislation, Medicaid, consumer legislation, and nursing home protections.

Legal services advocates were also on the forefront of regulatory developments on AFDC; SSI; Medicaid; Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment (EPSDT); food programs; Hill-Burton Act’s uncompensated health care and community services requirements; regulations to implement the provisions of Truth in Lending legislation; federal housing; energy assistance and weatherization programs; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; legislation protecting migrant farmworkers from actions by growers and farm labor contractors; Fair Debt Collection Practices Act; and numerous others.

Legal services lawyers fundamentally change treatment of the poor

Perhaps most important, through sustained and effective advocacy, legal services lawyers were able to fundamentally change the way that public and private entities dealt with the poor. Legal services representation helped alter the court system by simplifying court procedures and rules so that they could be understood by, and made more accessible to, low-income people with limited education. Legal services was also on the forefront of community legal education and self-help initiatives. As a result of legal services representation, welfare and public housing bureaucracies, social service agencies, schools, and hospitals began to act in accordance with established rules and to treat poor people more equitably and in a manner more sensitive to their needs.

Legal services programs were on the forefront of the efforts to assist women who were victims of domestic violence and to ensure that police and prosecutors took their complaints seriously and treated them as victims of criminal acts by their abusers rather than simply as parties to domestic squabbles.