For any system of justice to be considered legitimate, those unable to afford quality and independent advocacy must have meaningful access to the courts and the political system to overcome the many systemic barriers they face as they struggle to achieve self sufficiency. Historically in Hawai`i, the Legal Aid Society of Hawai`i (LASH) was the primary non-profit services program that provided systemic advocacy for low-income individuals, families and communities.
In 1996, the Gingrich Congress barred legal aid programs funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation(LSC) from engaging in any class actions or cases involving welfare reform. In addition, there were prohibitions against providing any assistance to many immigrants and collecting court awarded attorneys fees for successfully representing clients challenging unfair or illegal treatment by the government. As the LSC funded program in Hawai`i, LASH was faced with the dilemma of ending its long-standing responsibility to provide critical complex advocacy for individuals and groups trying to assert their legal rights.
After much discussion among the LASH board and staff, LASH became lead plaintiff in a federal law suit challenging the constitutionality under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution of the Congressionally mandated restrictions. The case (LASH vs. LSC) was the first effort in the nation to challenge the new LSC restrictions. LASH was joined in the case by four other legal services programs in California and Alaska and by the Hawai`i Justice Foundation. The challenge was successful and the Federal District Court in Hawai`i enjoined LSC from enforcing the restrictions until LSC modified its regulations prohibiting LSC funded legal aid programs from creating and supporting with unrestricted funding affiliates to engage in the restricted activities.
Once LSC modified its Regulation 1610 to permit the formation of affiliate corporations, LASH created the Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) to provide advocacy in areas or processes that LASH was prohibited from engaging in either by regulation or politics. Once created, the LEJ board adopted a mission statement that focused on advocating on behalf of low income individuals and families on civil legal issues of statewide importance to help our clients gain access to resources, services and fair treatment they need to realize their opportunities for self achievement and economic security.
Since 2011, LEJ has been known as the Hawai`i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice and has been affiliated with the Appleseed Network. LEJ views this expansion as important to connection advocacy initiatives in Hawai`i to those in mainland and and expansion of its non-litigation advocacy.
Since its creation LEJ has successfully advocated for significant change in the:
- Improvement of maintenance in public housing projects
- Rights of disabled tenants to reasonable accommodations
- Enforcement of federal guarantees of homeless children to educational stability
- Protecting access to critical health care services for immigrants
- Providing guarantees to applicants for food stamps to timely and appropriate processing of their applications
- Enforcing utility subsidies for low income tenants in federally subsidized housing
- Providing representation for disabled veterans seeking to access wrongfully denied compensation for service related disabilities and disabled persons entitled to Social Security disability benefits
- Improving access for the low income population to the judicial system