Rationing Legal Services

87 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2012 Last revised: 15 May 2013

Date Written: May 15, 2013


There is a deepening crisis in the funding of legal services in the United States. The House of Representatives has proposed cutting the budget of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), one of the main funders of legal assistance to America’s poor, to an all time low in inflation-adjusted terms. Other sources of funding, such as Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA) are also way down due to low interest rates. More than 135 state and local organizations providing LSC assistance are now in a precarious position. The community was already decimated by the last round of cuts in January 2011, that led to the laying off of 1,226 lawyers and support staff at LSC-funded organizations, and 81,000 fewer low-income Americans receiving aid. This is all occurring at a time of extremely high unemployment and state budget cuts in services supporting low-income people, meaning demand for many of these services is going up.

The deepening crisis in funding of legal services only makes more pressing and manifest a sad reality: There is and always will be persistent scarcity in the availability of both criminal and civil legal assistance. Given this persistent scarcity, this Article will focus on how existing Legal Service Providers (LSPs), both civil and criminal, should ration their services when they cannot help everyone.

To illustrate the difficulty these issues involve, consider two types of LSPs, the Public Defender Service and Connecticut Legal Services, that I discuss in greater depth below. Should the Public Defender Service favor offenders under the age of 25 instead of those older than 55? Should other public defenders offices with death eligible offenses favor those facing the death penalty over those facing life sentences? How should Connecticut Legal Services prioritize its civil cases and clients? Should it favor clients with cases better suited for impact litigation over those that fall in the direct service category? Should either institution prioritize those with the most need? Or, should they allocate by lottery?

These are but a small number of the difficult questions faced by those who have to ration legal services. Very little has been said as to what principles should govern the rationing of legal services. This is surprising given that civil and criminal LSPs are often funded through a mixture of government funding and charitable support in such a way that they should be answerable on questions of justice, and because their decisions whether or not to support a client is likely to have significant effects on that person’s life prospects. Thus, it seems as though the rationing decisions of LSPs deserve significant ethical scrutiny.

In this Article, I seek to remedy this deficit in the existing literature by engaging in a comprehensive analysis of how LSPs should allocate their resources given the reality of persistent scarcity. Luckily, this work does not have to begin at square one. There is a developed literature in bioethics on the allocation of persistently scarce medical goods (such as organs, ICU beds, and vaccine doses) that I use to illuminate the problems facing LSPs and the potential rationing principles they might adopt.

Keywords: rationing, legal services, public defender, poverty, bioethics, philosophy

JEL Classification: D3, D61, D62, D71, D78, H23, H4, H41, H42, H53, I38, K4, K41

Suggested Citation

Cohen, I. Glenn, Rationing Legal Services (May 15, 2013). The Journal of Legal Analysis, Vol 5., Issue 1, pp. 221-307, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2180453

I. Glenn Cohen (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1525 Massachusetts Avenue
Griswold Hall 503
Cambridge, 02138
United States

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