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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rationing Legal Services

In the last few years at both the federal and state level there have been deep cuts to providing legal assistance to the poor.  This only  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, my new article, Rationing Legal Services just published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Legal Analysis, examines 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 (CLS), that I discuss in greater depth in the paper. Should the Public Defender Service favor offenders under the age of twenty-five years instead of those older than fifty-five years? Should other public defenders offices with death eligible offenses favor those facing the death penalty over those facing life sentences? Should providers favor clients they think can make actual innocence claims over those who cannot? How should CLS 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?

I begin by looking at how three real-world LSPs currently rationi(PDS, CLS, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau). Then, in trying to answer these questions I draw on a developing literature in bioethics on the rationing of medical goods (organ, ICU beds, vaccine doses, etc) and show how the analogy can help us develop better rationing systems. I discuss six possible families of ‘simple’ rationing principles: first-come-first-serve, lottery, priority to the worst-off, age-weighting, best outcomes, and instrumental forms of allocation and the ethical complexities with several variants of each. While I ultimately tip my hand on my views of each of these sub-principles, my primary aim is to enrich the discourse on rationing legal services by showing LSPs and legal scholars that they must make a decision as to each of these issues, even if it is not the decision I would reach.

I also examine places where the analogy potentially breaks down. First, I examine how bringing in dignitary or participatory values complicates the allocation decision, drawing in particular on Jerry Mashaw’s work on Due Process values. Second, I ask whether it makes a difference that, in some cases, individuals who receive legal assistance will end up succeeding in cases where they do not “deserve” to win. I also examine whether the nature of legal services as “adversarial goods”, the allocation of which increases costs for those on the other side of the “v.”, should make a difference. Third, I relax the assumption that funding streams and lawyer satisfaction are independent of the rationing principles selected, and examine how that changes the picture. Finally, I respond to a potential objection that I have not left sufficient room for LSP institutional self-definition.

The end of the paper entitled “Some Realism about Rationing”, takes a step back to look for the sweet spot where theory meets practice. I use the foregoing analysis to recommend eight very tangible steps LSPs might take, within their administrability constraints, to implement more ethical rationing.

While this paper is now done I am hoping to do significant further work on these issues and possibly pursue a book project on it, so comments on or offline are very welcome. I am also collaborating with my wonderful and indefatigable colleague Jim Greiner and a colleague in the LSP world to do further work concerning experimentation in the delivery of legal services and the research ethics and research design issues it raises.

- I. Glenn Cohen

Posted by Ivan Cohen on May 15, 2013 at 02:57 PM in Article Spotlight, Civil Procedure, Law and Politics, Legal Theory, Life of Law Schools, Peer-Reviewed Journals | Permalink

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Interesting post and interesting project. Seems especially timely as folks start to celebrate (or something) Gideon's big anniversary.

But a trifling question, and one I assure you is not intended to be snide: Why do you tell us that the JLA is peer reviewed? What difference does that make here and for you?

Posted by: SparkleMotion | May 15, 2013 6:52:26 PM

Thanks Sparkle Motion. Because the medical folks tend count peer and non-peer reviewed journals differently I've just taken to being specific about it when a journal is peer reviewed. But I publish in law reviews and peer reviewed journals, love both, and meant nothing by it.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | May 15, 2013 9:43:28 PM

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