Civil Legal Aid

November 29, 2007

For many families, civil legal aid is a lifeline that enables them to save their home from a foreclosure or eviction, recover back wages from an employer, obtain desperately needed disability benefits, or end abuse by a violent spouse.

But the lifeline is frayed to the breaking point, creating a large “Justice Gap” between the rich and the poor. Anemic funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) limits the number of families that legal aid lawyers can serve. Other sources of civil legal aid funding — including Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) revenue and state and local government appropriations — are sharply down too.  At the same time, the economic downturn has increased the need for help as a record number of Americans are living in poverty.  

Exacerbating the crisis in legal representation is a set of federal restrictions that have blocked LSC-funded programs from representing their clients as effectively and efficiently as possible. The restrictions prohibit LSC grantee programs from filing class action lawsuits, even on behalf of seniors targeted by predatory lenders. They prevent the representation of certain legal immigrants, even in suits to recover stolen back wages. And they muzzle the voice of low-income communities, as the restrictions prevent legal aid lawyers from actively advocating on behalf of their client communities before legislative and administrative bodies. In an egregious federal overreach, the restrictions apply not only to programs' LSC dollars, but to all other funding sources, including state and local government funds, IOLTA revenue, and charitable donations. 

We work to bring attention to the need for increased funding for civil legal aid, to counter extreme attacks on LSC, and to remove the harmful restrictions on legal aid programs. We lead a national public education campaign to revitalize LSC, issue reports documenting the need for representation, write op-eds, and disseminate information through our Justice Update.