September 25, 2012

The Crisis in Civil Legal Aid

Alan W. Houseman, civil legal aid, CLASP, Department of Justice, IOLTA, Justice Gap, Legal Services Corporation, LSC, President Obama


By Alan W. Houseman, Executive Director, CLASP (the Center for Law and Social Policy)

Civil legal aid helps low-income people navigate various civil matters like housing evictions, home foreclosures, predatory lending, child support, and domestic violence. It also helps people access government benefits like Social Security, disability, unemployment insurance, food stamps, TANF and health insurance. 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.

Civil legal aid in the United States is provided by approximately 500 independent, staff-based service providers, including 135 programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).  These programs are non-profit entities that deliver civil legal aid by full-time attorneys and paralegals who provide advice, brief service, court and hearing representation, community legal education, economic and community development, and policy advocacy. 

These core providers are supplemented by approximately 900 pro bono programs affiliated with state and local bar associations, over 200 law school clinical programs and several hundred self-help programs. 

Total funding for civil legal aid is approximately $1,375,000,000. Funding comes from a variety of sources. The largest single funder is LSC. However, state sources provide the largest amount of overall funding. These include increases in filing fees, general revenue appropriations and Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA). (IOLTA programs distribute the pooled interest of client trust funds to civil legal aid programs and other access-to-justice initiatives. Client trust funds contain short-term deposits of clients held by lawyers in interest-bearing accounts, which are used to pay court fees, settlement payments, and similar client needs.)

There is a huge gap between the actual legal needs of low-income people and the capacity of the civil legal assistance system to meet those needs. This “justice gap” was most recently demonstrated by in a 2009 report by the Legal Services Corporation, “Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.”  The report’s key findings were:

  • 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

Last year the Congress reduced funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) from $402 million in 2011 to $348 million in 2012. In response, LSC funded programs reduced attorneys by 12.5 percent, paralegals by 17.4 percent and administrative staff by 12.7 percent. Programs closed 29 offices in 2012, many of them in rural areas. As a result, the LSC funded civil legal aid program served 81,000 fewer low-income Americans.

President Obama’s 2013 Budget proposed to restore LSC funding to the 2011 level. The Continuing Resolution voted on in September will fund LSC at $350 million. According to the Report of OMB on Sequestration, LSC will be cut another 29 million in January to a funding level of $321 million if Sequestration goes into effect.

These funding levels are totally inadequate. Civil legal aid programs will turn away at least as many clients that they served in 2012 and will turn away even more in 2013.  We need to obtain funding of at least $800,000,000, the level it would have been at in 1980 dollars (when the program reached its high water mark in funding).

So What Should Be Done? The civil legal aid system needs more funding and better service delivery. This blog addresses funding. 

The president and LSC should set out a plan to increase LSC to $600 million within two years. 

The Justice Department and LSC should work to find new funding streams and expand existing funding to civil legal aid from other federal departments, such as the health and housing agencies.

The expansion of state funding must continue. State access-to-justice commissions, state bar associations, state funders and justice leaders at the state level must continue to make state funding for legal services a high priority, and push to expand filing fee surcharges and general revenue support. Expanding IOLTA funding will largely depend on increasing interest rates. Still, state advocates should continue to pursue mandatory IOLTA contributions in the six states now without it. They should also push for “comparability provisions” in the 18 states that do not have them now.