Can Do, Indeed!

This article is re-posted with permission from the Management Information Exchange Journal.

By Gerry Singsen

I saw a delightful production of Bernstein’s treatment of Voltaire’s “Candide” recently. In this classic farce, the iconic optimist, Pangloss, puts a superficial positive spin on every negative occurrence in order to prove that this is the best of all possible worlds. Murder, rape, torture, deceit and other terrible events are all just misunderstood by the people to whom they happen. About to be hung, he notes that God in his wisdom made it possible to invent the rope.

Today in our legal services world, negative developments dominate our consciousness. The MIE Journal Committee sees an unending cycle of “one step forward, two steps back” and asks why, after forty-five years of federal funding, “justice” is not more important in our country? Why does the public allow our funding to decline just when low income people face increasing poverty and resulting legal problems? Is the “rule of law” collapsing? Should we abandon our historic reliance on government funding because any growth will inevitably be followed by cuts? It is all too frustrating. Only a Pangloss could find this the best of all possible worlds.

Yet underneath the stormy surface I believe there are at least three strong currents flowing toward more justice for low-income individuals with legal problems. Where these currents are taking us is probably not where we hoped we were going, but the emerging characteristics of this new world are far more positive than our bad feelings about today would suggest. I believe these currents are carrying us forward, not back. The public is not and will not allow our funding to decline in any sustained fashion. Instead, the public will increasingly support us through charitable giving along with governmental support. The rule of law is gaining, not declining, on the world stage.

The negative attacks and economic shocks are annoying and must be dealt with in the short run, but three underlying developments will determine the shape of legal services in the future:
  • First, in these forty-five years (since the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) began funding civil legal services in 1966), civil legal services has grown from a youthful and inexperienced movement into a mature institution in which leadership and underlying purpose are evolving naturally into new shapes that we can’t predict.
  • Second, the systems through which people obtain just results and assert their legal rights are being reconceived along lines that are very promising but quite different than some of our earlier legal services visions.
  • Third, we may already be moving away from dependence on traditional funding by annually appropriated government grants toward a much more complex but healthy financial future.

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