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When a battered but poor spouse seeks legal help in Western New York to get away from an abuser, lawyers now don't just ask, "Did your partner hit you?"

Instead, they also must ask, "When did they last hit you?"

That's because an overburdened Neighborhood Legal Services only has the funding to handle a few cases, so it picks the ones that are the most immediate emergencies. It also stops answering the phone a half-hour after opening each day because it can't afford to take on more new clients.

That's the state of legal services for the poor in New York. The underfunding doesn't just mean that justice is being delayed. It literally is being denied to many impoverished people because a fund historically relied on to finance those services no longer produces the revenue it once did.

Many of the poor end up effectively having no rights because they can't afford to go to court to enforce them.

At issue here are not the class-action suits that many members of Congress love to hate -- although they should not be banned.

What's in jeopardy now is the ability of poor individuals to pursue basic legal rights in cases that involve the day-to-day struggle to survive.

These are the cases of poor tenants who get wrongly evicted because they complain about raw sewage backing up. Or because they dare to withhold rent for an apartment that doesn't meet minimum habitability codes.

These are the cases in which a person is denied food stamps or SSI or disability payments because of some snafu, though no miracle has happened to make them suddenly no longer disabled. Or they're the cases of workers who get laid off but whose former bosses contest their unemployment benefits because they know they might win by default.

This isn't a case of lawyers filing frivolous suits supporting every sob story that walks in the door. The Western New York Law Center wins over 95 percent of appeals in cases involving welfare or disability denials. That's solid evidence that these lawyers don't waste their time on cases without merit.

Some of these cases save Erie County money by keeping people off welfare, obtaining the payments from other sources that they were entitled to.

But all of that has been threatened in recent years by both a cut in federal funding for civil legal services for the poor and by a precipitous drop in state support.

State financing from the Interest on Lawyers' Accounts fund -- the primary source for such funding -- was about $30 million in 1992.

But the fund is financed by interest earned on funds that lawyers hold for clients. With the recent decline in interest rates, it dwindled to less than $13 million in 1996 and is projected to yield less than $10 million this year.

With less money to fund it, the Law Center cut its workload from 10,000 cases in 1994 to 8,000 in 1996.

A legal-reform proposal being pushed by Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Helene Weinstein would, among other things, set annual funding for civil legal services at about $40 million. That would make up for funding cuts and inflation since 1992 and cover new demand.

Weinstein's proposal would have court officials identify a source for the funding. Wherever the money is found, it would be a relative pittance in the state budget. Yet it could make a big difference in the lives of poor people who can't afford legal fees.

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