Civil legal aid is the assistance of counsel and legal advocacy for people living in 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 most civil cases. This puts justice out of reach for low-income people and undermines a fundamental principle of our nation: the amount of money a person has should not determine the quality of justice they receive.
Free legal aid section programs help ensure fairness in the justice system. Legal aid providers protect the rights of millions of people 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 homes, employment, or custody of their children. For example, research has shown that providing legal services “significantly lowers the incidence of domestic violence.” The form of assistance depends on the type of legal problem the client faces. Free legal aid section lawyers advocate for clients in various 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 helping 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 requesting assistance from legal aid programs must be turned away. Those who are served often receive straightforward 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 them.
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 the issue area.
Additional funding sources 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 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.