Rationing Legal Services: Can Bioethics Help? My new article forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Analysis

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 my new article Rationing Legal Services, forthcoming in the peer-reviewed Journal of Legal Analysis (and available for free download in draft form now), 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.

Institutional Corruption, Conflicts of Interest and Commitment, and Online Courses

I am writing this post from a terrific conference on Institutional Financial Conflicts of Interest In Research Universities, hosted at Harvard Law by the Petrie-Flom Center and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

One set of fascinating questions that has been raised is when the university should reign in the ability of faculty members to take on directorships and other outside activities. While these issues have been well-known in the sciences and medicine, increasingly it has come home to roost in the law and other faculties. The Harvard Law School  recently adopted a new conflicts of interest policy, as part of a Harvard-wide revision of its policies.

Here is a question that has received less discussion from what I have seen, though it may become more pressing given Coursera, EdX, and other online teaching venues.  The New Yorker profile of my Harvard Business School colleague and world-renowned teacher Clayton Christensen reported that he has recorded videos lectures (complete with good-looking young men and women actors playing students and laughing at the right moments, what a perk!) for the University of Phoenix’s lecture series, for significant remuneration. Imagine that this series (or one of these other non-Harvard platforms) were to offer to pay half a million dollars to me to teach a 4-hour Civil Procedure (or health law or bioethics and the law course) that would in part mirror the teaching I do of the course at Harvard Law School. Should Harvard have a veto right over me doing so? Should it demand “a piece of the action” and revenue sharing agreements as a condition of letting me participate? After all, I am in some ways trading on my capitol for teaching at Harvard, and potentially also diluting the reputational value of Harvard instruction (the informercial would go “You don’t need to go to Harvard to get a lecture from a Harvard Prof! Only $9.99!”) How can the rules governing patent and other IP ownership in the  life and other sciences help us develop a sensible policy? Would or should things be different if I gave these lectures for free on YouTube rather than selling them? [Disclosure: Harvard DOES have a policy on conflicts of commitment, though I am unaware of it speaking specifically to these issues about online lectures, but happy to be corrected].