Securing Equal Justice for All: A Brief History of Civil Legal Aid Assistance in the United States

By: Alan W. Houseman and Linda E. Perle. Published by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Published in May 2018.

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Houseman & Perle begin their article with a discussion of the early years of legal aid, which sprouted from charitable legal assistance from individual lawyers and expanded in the 19th century as women’s clubs, immigrant societies, and national organizations such as the National Alliance of Legal Aid Societies (predecessor to the NLADA) were organized. However, resources were still scarce, and Houseman & Perle explain the shift towards utilizing law as a mechanism for social reform.

The article describes how President Johnson’s War on Poverty led to the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which partnered with the American Bar Association (ABA) to allocate federal funds and create local programs to administer legal aid. Additionally, the authors explain how these organizations established national standards that required adequate representation of the low-income community on boards of legal aid programs and easily accessible service in all areas of the law.

This historical brief also describes the conception of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a nonprofit organization that the Nixon Administration intended to be independent of political pressures. The article explains how the LSC drastically increased legal aid funding, achieved national access to basic civil legal services, and increased the involvement of private attorneys in civil legal services. Additionally, the article details how the LSC helped to mold the legal community to contain departments tailored to specific under-served groups, such as disabled veterans.

The authors also show how shifts in political power have positively and negatively affected the success of legal aid programs as presidential administrations have changed. Houseman & Perle explain how the Reagan Administration, the 104th Congress, and the Trump administration all have posed serious issues for the fight for equal justice, while the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations have all helped to increase funding and expansion of the civil legal aid community. However, the authors also note that through all administrations, there were still organizations such as the ABA, the NLADA, CLASP, the private bar, and law school clinics that have fought valiantly for equal justice.

The article also informs readers about present-day developments of legal aid guided by technological innovations such as state and self-help websites, kiosks designed to prepare court documents for individuals, and legal help hotlines. Additionally, the authors recount recent pilot programs that aim to close the justice gap in California, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington D.C.

In regards to the future of civil legal aid, the article explains the unknown future for the LSC under the Trump Administration, which has expressed its interest in the complete elimination of the LSC. In response to this daunting possibility, the authors forecast a long battle for increased federal funding, and a continued restructuring of the legal services delivery system.

Categories: Legal Aid Attorneys, National, Policymakers and Funders, Researchers and Academics

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