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The Future Of Civil Legal Aid: Initial Thoughts

November 11, 2013

The United States was founded under the fundamental principle of equal justice for all.
In the Preamble to the Constitution, our forefathers stated clearly and forcefully the purpose of the
government they were creating: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more
perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,
promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . .
. .”1
It is noteworthy that “establish Justice” precedes, and is the basis for, “domestic Tranquility,”
and that both come before “provide for the common defense.” “Equal Justice for All” is also
inscribed above the entrance to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Yet, equal justice is not a reality for millions of Americans. This is particularly true for
low-income Americans who do not have meaningful access to legal information, advice,
assistance, or actual representation in court. Specifically, because there is not a Constitutional
civil right to counsel, millions of low-income Americans who cannot afford to pay a lawyer do not
have access to necessary advice and representation in civil matters.
In 2005 the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) completed a study entitled, “Documenting
the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans,”2

which examined the adequacy of available funding to meet the legal needs of the low-income
population in the United States. The study was updated in 2009, employing the same
methodology to document the continued need for civil legal aid among low-income Americans.3

The studies revealed three main commonalities. First, both studies showed that for every client
who received service from an LSC grantee, one eligible applicant was turned away.4
In other
words, 50 percent of potential clients that request assistance are turned away due to lack of
resources on the part of the program. Second, the studies each looked at a number of individual
state studies addressing the civil legal problems faced by states’ respective low-income residents
conducted over the last four years.5
Seven of the state studies validated the findings of the
national study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1994, which demonstrated
that less than 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income Americans were being met.6
the studies identified the number of legal aid lawyers in both LSC and non-LSC funded programs,