Civil Legal Aid: FAQ for Advocates

KTVH Montana headline
KTVH Montana headline
First read Messaging and talking points

What is civil legal aid?
Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have.

It provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. Civil Legal Aid makes it easier to access information — whether through easy-to-understand forms, including online forms; legal assistance or representation; and legal self-help centers — so people can know their rights.

Civil Legal Aid also helps streamline the court system and cuts down on court costs. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance we close with “justice for all.” We need programs like Civil Legal Aid to ensure that the very principle our founding fathers envisioned remains alive: justice for all, not the few who can afford it.

Civil legal aid is a combination of services and resources that helps Americans of all backgrounds – including those who face the toughest legal challenges: children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and victims of domestic violence – to effectively navigate the justice system.

Civil legal aid connects Americans with a range of services—including legal assistance and representation; self-help centers and other court-based services, free legal clinics and pro-bono assistance, and access to web-based information and forms—that help guide them through complicated legal proceedings. In doing so, civil legal aid helps Americans protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families.

What are examples of civil legal aid services?
Civil legal aid provides:

  • Easy-to-understand forms, including online forms, that people can use in civil legal proceedings.
  • Legal assistance, including legal self-help centers, so people can know their rights.
  • Legal representation to those who cannot afford it — because justice should not depend on how much money you have.

Isn’t everyone who can’t afford a lawyer entitled to have one appointed, like they say on TV?
Only for serious criminal cases. There is no such constitutional right to counsel in civil cases. Most low-income people facing pressing legal problems of everyday life must do so alone, without even basic assistance.

What kinds of people are helped by civil legal aid?
Americans of all backgrounds and ages, including families, children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and victims of domestic violence.

What kinds of issues are typically involved in civil legal aid?
Civil legal aid provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, health, housing and families.

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NBC News special report from Boston

 

Does civil legal aid just help the poor?
Civil legal aid provides a range of services, some of which are available regardless of income. Civil legal aid providers typically only represent people who are at 125% of the poverty level or below. Certain types of civil legal aid, such as online resources or self-help kiosks in courts, are also available to moderate and middle-income people who simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

What about self-help?
Civil legal aid often provides access to legal aid self-help centers and online resources.

How does civil legal aid help?
Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money one has. Equal justice under law is a fundamental American value, engraved on the Supreme Court building and taught in classrooms across the country. Civil legal aid helps to fulfill this promise of justice for all, not just for the few who can afford it.

How is civil legal aid funded?
Civil legal aid is funded by a variety of sources. Public funding comes from federal, state, and local governments. Private support comes from charitable donations and foundation grants as well as from the volunteer services of private lawyers, law students, and others. Still, funding for civil legal aid meets only 20% of the need.

Wherever funds originate, civil legal aid is an investment with a good return for taxpayers, businesses and communities. For example, businesses and investors save money from the restoration of home values resulting from foreclosure prevention. Health care providers also save money when civil legal aid helps eligible families obtain insurance coverage or Medicaid to pay for their services.

Civil legal aid also helps reduce—not increase—costs to taxpayers. Taxpayers save money from legal aid’s success in reducing homelessness for children, veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and others, and the incidence of domestic violence. Civil legal aid also helps streamline the court system by reducing the number of unnecessary lawsuits and cutting down on court costs and staff overtime.

Many middle-class families cannot afford a lawyer. How does civil legal aid help them?
Civil legal aid can help ensure that everyone is treated fairly in the justice system, regardless of how much money one has. Civil legal aid serves Americans of all backgrounds and ages, including those who face the toughest legal challenges: children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and victims of domestic violence. Civil legal aid takes many forms, and middle-class families can access many resources such as online information and forms and court-based self-help centers.

Still, despite progress made, we are facing a crisis of access to these services. To help ensure fairness in the justice system, it is critical that we expand access to these services for Americans of all backgrounds.

What is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC)? How does it fit into the bigger picture of civil legal aid?
LSC administers the federal government’s investment in civil legal aid. It is the largest single funder of civil legal aid, but it provides less than one-quarter of the total funding nationwide.

LSC funds 134 independent non-profit organizations located in every state. These programs are among several hundred non-profits, pro bono programs, court-based services, and others that comprise the civil legal aid sector.

Public funding for civil legal aid also comes from state and local governments. Private support comes from charitable donations and foundation grants, as well as from the volunteer services of private lawyers, law students, and others.

Hartford Courant headline
Hartford Courant headline

How does pro bono work by lawyers fit into the picture?
Pro bono legal representation is a critical component of civil legal aid and plays an important role in providing access to the civil justice system, but it is only part of the solution. Despite the essential work of pro-bono attorneys, our nation faces an enormous justice gap. The demand for legal aid far outstrips the resources available, and as a result, many are navigating high-stakes legal situations—in which their families, homes, and livelihoods are on the line—on their own.

Closing this gap will require both an expansion of pro bono services and a variety of other measures, including increased funding from all sources and continued implementation of innovative solutions such as self-help centers, medical-legal partnerships, and access to web-based information and forms.

How does civil legal aid help the court system?
Civil legal aid helps streamline the court system, reducing the number of unnecessary lawsuits and cutting down on court costs and staff overtime. Legal representation helps improve the efficiency of civil legal proceedings in the courts, while self-help centers and online legal forms can help parties navigate the system more effectively.

Related:
Messaging and talking points
Communicating about Civil Legal Aid to Laywers.