Advancing Justice for More than a Century
NLADA is America's oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel.
For more than a century, we have pioneered access to justice at the national, state, and local levels in multiple ways: helping create many of the first public defense systems in the country; supporting the Legal Services Corporation; developing nationally applicable standards for legal representation; and advocating for groundbreaking legislation. We serve as the collective voice for our country's civil legal aid and public defense providers and offer high-quality advocacy, training, and technical assistance.
In 1911, 15 legal aid societies joined together in New York to create an association that would become NLADA. The organization’s mission, then as today, was simple: fulfilling the American promise of equal justice under the law.
Throughout the 20th century, legal services for low-income people have grown across America, in recognition of how access to counsel, or the lack thereof, affects not just court proceedings but many other outcomes in life. Reginald Heber Smith, a leading lawyer in Boston, famously explained it this way: a failure to provide fair administration of the law “not only robs the poor of their only protection, but places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever invented.”
Our organization expanded and improved through the middle of the 20th century. The first annual conference took place in 1923, creating what has become the leading training event for the equal justice community. In 1956 it added a defender section; two years later, what was by then called the National Legal Aid Association became NLADA.
The 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were an especially critical time for both civil and criminal justice in America. By the 1964 passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, there was a greater understanding of how legal aid could be an integral part of fighting poverty. After dedicated research and advocacy by NLADA and others, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was established in 1974 to promote civil legal services for low-income Americans. Since then, NLADA has played an integral role in protecting the LSC budget: for example, we were central to the coalition that preserved LSC when the Reagan Administration threatened its very existence.
The nation’s public defense systems were also taking shape during this period. In 1963, seven years after creation of NLADA’s Defender section, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that a low-income person accused of a serious crime was entitled to defense counsel at state expense—a foundation of modern public defense. In subsequent years, NLADA established the National Defender Project to strengthen public defense systems, filed an amicus brief in the landmark In re Gault (1967) which saw the Supreme Court extend to children the rights established by the Gideon decision, and produced guidelines to improve representation by public defenders.
NLADA’s commitment to our nation’s civil legal aid and public defense attorneys—and, therefore, to low-income people receiving their services—continues today. Learn more about our current programs to strengthen civil legal aid and public defense.