The Justice Gap: Civil Legal Assistance Today and Tomorrow

By: Alan W. Houseman. Published by: Center for American Progress (CAP). Published in June 2011.

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This is one of several papers commissioned by CAP’s 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.

Introduction and summary 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 also recommends more funding and better service delivery.

Categories: General/Unspecified Clients, Legal Aid Attorneys, National, Policymakers and Funders

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