Causes of Legal Aid Need Should Be Attacked* by Murray Seasongood
With all the changes that have come about since my apprenticeship in legal aid in 1902, one wonders why the Cincinnati Legal Aid Society should still be running through the mill, each year, its six thousand or more civil cases and the several hundred criminal cases of its voluntary defender. Since the turn of the century we have acquired social security laws, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, the NLRB and, to do away with the horrors of the "fellow servant rule" and "assumption of risk" workmen's compensation laws. We have acquired also through WPA and PWA relief even to the extent of providing clothing; transportation in some cities (New York e.g.) at far less than cost; blue sky laws to prevent investment in unsound securities; declaratory judgments and arbitration and small claims courts; and teachers' and employees' credit companies. And yet the grind of cases seems to continue unabated and, indeed, to increase.
Must not, then, the legal aid enthusiast look to the causes of the cases coming in and seek to remedy those causes, rather than only to apply the palliative of help for the clients? The ideal legal aid society, or to be specific, the National Association of Legal Aid organizations, should, in my opinion, seek to diminish the causes of controversies in which legal aid organizations are asked to act. I present some subjects which are worthy of study and possibly, action:
First: Sickness insurance and insurance for hospital care. The question of socialized or cooperative medicine is too large a subject for discussion here. But, I became convinced, while one of the trustees of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, of the value of properly managed insurance for sickness and hospital care; especially after visiting the Negro hospital in New Orleans, entirely staffed by Negroes. That system is followed there with the greatest of success and childbirth is handled under the best and most sanitary methods, with instruction to the mother which benefits her and her child throughout life.
Second: The same for dental treatment and general adoption of rulings and legislation intended to curb the injury and awful expense incident to the activities of disreputable practitioners. . . .
Third: Constant and more searching investigation of all kinds of insurance than is afforded by state authorities, is necessary. . . .
Fourth: Loan companies, pawn brokers and professional bondsmen are common causes of financial distress. . . .
Fifth: What shall be said of installment buying? It stimulates demand by making possible the purchase of numerous articles that would be impossible to acquire otherwise; but it is a frequent cause of distress. . . But not only are the older kinds of purchases, such as furniture, houses and jewelry, still bought by the installment method, but there are radios, automobiles, watches and clocks, dress suits, dresses, cloaks and furs, and even razors so purchasable. . . .
Sixth: Automobile insurance should everywhere be compulsory, and not to have driving tests and licensing of drivers is really outrageous. How many times has it happened that a wage earner, through no fault of his own, is deprived of his means of livelihood temporarily or permanently, by a wholly irresponsible moron using an automobile. . . .
Seventh: The whole system of treatment of crime is hopelessly archaic. There is very little sensible attempt to rehabilitate the criminal and to allow him to re-adjust himself as a wage earner and supporter of a family.
Eighth: What shall we say of gambling, now largely utilized for "religious" and kindred purposes. Whether, and to what extent, this natural proclivity should be allowed is a subject for more consideration than it is receiving. But, certainly, if it is allowed, it should be under government supervision as is the case of European countries. Anything is better than non-enforcement and the collusion between criminals and low political gangs.
Ninth: More education and much more adult education is needed. Prevalence of existing crime has often been found due to malefactors having no skills for legitimate employment. Prostitution is an example. With better education, too, there would be better government and there is no doubt that the defective local government that pervades most of the United States results in non-use of public resources for the benefit of the localities and of those in them most in need.
Tenth: Finally, there should be a steady effort to reduce the cost of funerals and burials. Cities may conduct cemeteries (e.g. Ohio General Code Sec. 4154--et sq.). I remember one of my first cases was for the widow of an engineer who was killed by the escape of ammonia fumes. She had an infant child and he left her $500.00, $495.00 of which was used for his funeral. Burial insurance, carried by many, is unduly expensive and results in extravagance in death out of all relation to the customary expenditures during life. Many cemetery associations also degenerate into rackets.
You may feel all this is a very ambitious program that, as some one said of Edward Everett Hale, "His specialty is the universe." My much esteemed friend, Reginald H. Smith of Boston (almost the embodiment of legal aid) said at the 1916 meeting of the Legal Aid Societies in Cincinnati, "The legal aid society cannot undertake to reform the world." While I differ with him on legal aid or any other matter with trepidation, still I make bold to ask, "Why not?" or at least why should not legal aid societies do something of the kind, instead of merely attending to the cases that come before them. Valuable as is legal aid for the poor, the prevention, so far as possible of the necessity for it, is of even greater worth.
Murray Seasongood (Oct. 27, 1878 - Feb. 21, 1983) served as the Mayor of Cincinnati from 1926-1930.
*From an address delivered at a meeting (July 25, 1938) of the Legal Aid Section of the American Bar Association. "The author's first experience with legal aid, in New York, in 1902, made him enthusiastic for this work. From 1930 to 1938 he was President of the Cincinnati Legal Aid Society; he was chairman for some time of the committee on Legal Aid of the Cincinnati Bar Association, during which period the Association made two contributions of $500 each. In 1932 a resolution offered by Mr. Seasongood concerning legal aid study was adopted by the International Congress of Comparative Law, meeting at The Hague, and another concerning the matter of the public defender at the Congress of 1937."
Reprinted from the Journal of the American Judicature Society. c. 1939