States Differ Greatly on Access to Civil Legal Aid, Study Shows
By Rabiah Alicia Burks
American Bar Association News Service
August 8, 2011
TORONTO — Access to civil legal aid in the United States for low-income populations is largely contingent on the state where they reside, said a new report, unveiled Friday, by the American Bar Foundation.
Although states have been tremendously creative in the way they deliver civil legal aid, they differ dramatically in the types of resources that they provide, the populations they are able to serve, and the amount of funding that is available, said Rebecca L. Sandefur, senior ABF researcher, who detailed the new report to an audience at “Access Across America: First Report of The Civil Justice Infrastructure Mapping Project,” a program of the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Toronto.
There is very little coordination of this activity either nationally or at the state level,” Sandefur said. “What this means, if you are a person who has a civil justice problem, is that, in a sense, geography is destiny.”
The Faces of Civil Legal Aid in the United States
In the United States, people eligible for civil legal aid extend beyond the estimated 54 million people who fall below the federal poverty level. Eligibility also includes the elderly, veterans, American Indians, people with disabilities, and those who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
When we think of civil legal aid in the United States, we often think of civil legal services offered to poor people, but if you look at what’s actually available… there is actually a range of groups that have a number of different funding sources that make it accessible to them as targets different kinds of social policy,”Sandefur said.
According to national reports, 80 percent of low-income residents’ legal needs are unmet.
What we know from those studies is that among these millions of people who are eligible for assistance, probably at least half of them, at any given time, are living in a household that is experiencing at least one significant civil justice problem,” Sandefur said. “These surveys suggest that many of them actually need it in any given year.”
There are many ways in which states provide civil legal services–staffed legal aid being the most common. Almost every state has an organized civil pro bono program that provides services to low-income individuals. Often states will have an additional program that serves the elderly populations, people with disabilities and veterans.
States generally also provide general information about how to use court services and ways to navigate the courts once participants arrive, as well as make forms accessible online.
Aside from these traditional services, states differ widely in other services they provide, Sandefur said. About half of the states have a toll-free hotline number that either provides advice or connects people to services.
At least three-quarters of states have a court –based self help center, and those centers typically do not provide representation,” Sandefur said. “They are typically open to everyone because courts can’t serve a single population.”
Self-help centers often provide information to people who will be representing themselves in court.
The idea is to equip you to be an unrepresented litigant and sort of handle this on your own,” Sandefur said.
A small number of courts use a computer kiosk instead of a staff person to walk them through the process.
We had a grant to put kiosks in a number of courthouses,” said Jonathan D. Asher, executive director of Colorado Legal Services. “Where the court provides clerk assistance to people using the kiosks, they worked pretty well. When people had to navigate them totally on their own, they didn’t work quite as well.”
To supplement established legal aid offices, some states have formal “judicare” programs that use legal service funds to pay private practice attorneys to service eligible populations. A few states have courthouse lawyer-for-a-day programs.
There a very few law schools that operate legal service offices.
They serve about 500 clients a year, so there are some states that use it as a legitimate delivery model for civil legal assistance,” Sandefur said.
These are all vitally important efforts to expand access to justice, and for some people the services provided is enough, said Asher.
For others, this is all they get, it’s not all they need,” said Asher.
Funding and Inequality
The various ways in which states provide these services are the result of a complicated funding model that ultimately leads to vast inequality among the states.
The Legal Services Corporation is the largest single funder of civil legal services in the United States, but only provides roughly a third of each state’s total amount used to support these services. LSC funds are distributed to states based on the percentage of low–income residents it supports.
Almost every state is at parity: if you have 6 percent of the population you get 6 percent of the money,” Sandefur said.
States have to look for outside funding, such as foundations, individuals and other sources, to supplement any unmet need.
Some states have been very successful through court fees and legislation in generating funding for civil legal services and some have not been so successful in doing that,” Sandefur said. “Then there are some states that generate a little but not enough to serve their populations.”
The study updates and expands the Legal Services Corporation’s 2005 report on the unmet civil justice needs of low-income Americans.
The foundation presented its findings during the program “Access Across America: First Report of The Civil Justice Infrastructure Mapping Project,” at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Toronto.