By: Alan W. Houseman and Linda E. Perle. Published by: Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Published in December 2013.
The program to provide legal services to the poor has never been without controversy. Depending on the how the political winds have blown, support for legal services in the United States has waxed and waned. Regardless of politics, however, the legal aid program has a long history of effective representation of low-income persons and has achieved many significant results for the low-income community from the courts, administrative agencies, and legislative bodies. With the addition of federal funding more than 40 years ago, the legal assistance program has expanded access to legal representation throughout the country and provided significant relief to millions of low-income and vulnerable persons. Without the civil legal assistance program, there would be virtually no access to civil justice for low-income persons in the United States, and the goal of equal justice for all would be only a distant dream. Although equal access to justice is far from complete, the legal services program provides vital legal assistance to our nation’s low-income community.
The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) has prepared this brief history of civil legal assistance for the low-income community in the United States, from its privately funded beginnings, through its achievement of federal funding, to its expansion and growth into a national program operating throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and former U.S. territories in the South Pacific. We also describe some of the political battles that have been fought around the legal services program and the restrictions that have come with government funding. We conclude with some brief thoughts about the future.