These papers were commissioned by the Doing What Works project to explore the persistent gap between the legal needs of low-income people and capacity of the civil legal assistance system to meet those needs. Studies indicate that less than 20 percent of poor Americans’ legal needs are being met, requiring unrepresented litigants to navigate complex and often unfriendly court systems. There’s also severe inequality among states in legal aid funding. Our country’s “pro se crisis” comes at a time when the need for civil legal assistance—to help people facing foreclosures, evictions, wrongful terminations, child custody, and other challenges—has never been higher.
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There’s a huge gap today between the legal needs of low-income people and the capacity of the civil legal assistance system to meet those needs. There’s also severe inequality in funding among states. This “justice gap” was most recently demonstrated by a 2009 Legal Services Corporation report, “Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.” Among the report’s key findings:
- For every recipient of LSC-funded legal aid, one eligible applicant was turned away.
- Less than 20 percent of low-income Americans’ legal needs were being met.
Without the services of a lawyer, low-income people with civil legal problems may have no practical way of protecting their rights and advancing their interests. As Congress declared when creating an independent organization to fund civil legal assistance in the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974: “Providing legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel will serve the best ends of justice and assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons” and will “reaffirm faith in our government of laws.”
Civil legal aid providers help low-income people and supportive groups navigate various civil matters like housing evictions, home foreclosures, predatory lending, child support, custody, and domestic violence. They also help people access government benefits like Social Security, disability, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and health insurance.
Between 1965 and 1985 civil legal assistance was funded primarily by the Legal Services Corporation and other federal funding sources. The LSC is a private nonprofit corporation funded by Congress to provide grants to civil legal aid programs. Over the last two decades, states have increased their funding and involvement in the overall operation of the civil legal aid system. Since 1996 LSC and state funders have been moving from a locally based legal services delivery system toward a more comprehensive, coordinated, and integrated statewide system for getting civil legal aid to low-income people.
The current civil legal assistance system is a locally based system of independent staff-based service providers, supplemented by private attorney volunteer (pro bono) programs, law school clinical programs, and self-help programs. Providers are funded from a variety of places, of which less than a third today are federal sources and more than a third are state sources.
This report describes the state of civil legal services today and how we got here. It makes the following recommendations:
Congress should increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation to $600 million within four years. The Obama administration should try to get federal agencies to increase their own funding for civil legal aid. And state advocates should seek to increase state funding through higher filing fees and general revenue dedicated to civil legal aid.
Better service delivery
We also need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the current system:
- Congress should eliminate unnecessary LSC restrictions on what programs can do.
- The LSC and state entities should develop concrete action plans to ensure training of and support for legal aid attorneys and managers.
- The LSC, Justice Department, American Bar Association, and state advocates should promote an increase in the number of private attorneys engaged in civil legal aid representation, and more effectively coordinate their time.
- The LSC and other funders should require legal aid programs to conduct ongoing self-evaluations and to use performance measures, and funders should likewise evaluate grantees for quality and effectiveness.
- The LSC and state funders should encourage innovative approaches to legal services and then help effective innovations replicate and scale up across the country.
- The LSC and the Justice Department should develop and institutionalize a research capacity within the legal aid system to study what works.
- Public and private supporters of civil legal aid should work to increase the number of access-to-justice commissions around the country.
A comprehensive reform agenda of the kind we recommend will require a coordinated and comprehensive effort among federal and state funders, the judiciary, the bar, and other stakeholders. Getting so many diverse stakeholders to work together will require leadership on the local, state, and federal levels and buy-in from the legal aid providers and pro bono networks.
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Alan W. Houseman is CLASP’s executive director, a position he has held since joining the organization in 1982.
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