What Is Legal Aid?

Civil legal aid is the assistance of counsel and legal advocacy for people living at or near poverty in legal matters that fall outside of the criminal justice system. For people facing civil legal challenges, such as unlawful evictions, foreclosure, domestic abuse, or wrongful denial of government assistance, navigating the justice system without a lawyer can be impossible. However, unlike the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in criminal proceedings, courts have not recognized a right to a lawyer in the vast majority of civil cases. This puts justice out of reach for low-income people, and undermines a fundamental principle of our nation, that:  the amount of money a person has should not determine the quality of justice they receive.

Legal aid programs help ensure fairness in the justice system. Almost 47 million people, and more than one in five children, live in or near poverty in the United States. Legal aid providers protect the rights of millions of Americans with low-income each year in areas such as housing, consumer, family, education and employment, and defend access to services for people of all backgrounds, including children, veterans, victims of domestic violence, the elderly, and those living with disabilities.

How Does Legal Aid Help?

Legal assistance is often the only lifeline available to people facing life-altering consequences, such as losing their home, employment, or custody of their children.  For example, research has shown that the provision of legal services “significantly lowers the incidence of domestic violence.”  The form of assistance depends on the type of legal problem the client faces.  Legal aid lawyers advocate for clients in a variety of matters outside of court, litigate on their behalf in court, and often lead complex legal actions  seeking systemic changes that affect large numbers of people facing similar circumstances.

Who Receives Legal Aid?

Despite dedicated advocacy by lawyers who often devote their careers to serving the needs of low-income people, programs are significantly under-resourced and often forced to prioritize serving the most disadvantaged clients on a limited number of matters affecting their most pressing legal needs.  Even so, it is estimated that roughly half of the eligible people that request assistance from legal aid programs have to be turned away. Those who are served often receive brief advice and limited services. Those turned away must rely upon self-help resources and the provision of legal information, but even these resources are not available to all who need it.

Who Provides Legal Aid?

Legal aid providers vary in size and mission; some are locally focused or concentrate only on a specific issue (such as domestic violence or employment practices), while others may take cases from across a city or state with few restrictions on issue area.

The total amount allocated to the delivery of civil legal aid in the United States is around $1.345 billion. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is the single largest funder of legal aid programs in the United States, providing about one-fourth of this funding. LSC is a federally-funded nonprofit corporation which makes grant awards to 134 grantees nationwide.  With this federal funding, its grantees are required to meet certain restrictions on advocacy and client eligibility that are not placed on many other sources of funding for civil legal aid.  NLADA played a leadership role in the creation of LSC in 1974, and continues to lobby vigorously in Congress in support of its funding.

Additional sources of funding for legal aid include private foundations and donations, state funding often through state bar foundations, contracts and grants from federal, state and local government entities and cy pres awards.

Pro bono assistance from private attorneys is an invaluable adjunct to the services provided by staff-based legal aid programs. Pro bono practice is rapidly becoming institutionalized in private firms and corporate legal departments. However, the unmet need for civil legal aid is so great that only transformative change in the resourcing of America’s dedicated legal assistance structures will enable this country to provide access to justice for all.