Civil Legal Aid…and Justice for Some

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Civil Legal Aid…and Justice for Some

The term “justice” can be found within the first few words of the Constitution, but for the 80% of low income individuals facing civil legal issues threatening their homes, jobs or families, it’s a concept that might be out of reach.

Here’s a grim statistic: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 63 million people qualify for free legal assistance, and 50% of those seeking civil legal help are turned away for lack of resources. Folks who might be the most in need of quality legal assistance with civil matters – those living below the poverty line or close to it – can’t access it half of the time.

How did we get here?

If You Cannot Afford an Attorney, None Will Be Provided for You
As you and I know, unlike criminal legal aid which guarantees accused offenders free assistance, civil legal help is not a right. It’s provided by a variety of sources – from nonprofit organizations, state and other government-funded programs to small private foundations and pro-bono work.

A lot of that funding comes from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a government sanctioned non-profit organization set up in 1974 to support grantees that operate civil legal assistance programs at various government levels. However, there are limitations on whom the LSC can help. Financial eligibility and citizenship status can still prevent those in need from getting aid.

Sadly, three economic recessions since the 1980s have affected the accessibility of civil legal aid in two ways: through budget cuts to critical programs and an increase in unemployment, which in turn creates larger need for those very programs. A disheartening catch-22, to say the least.

What’s being done to dig civil legal aid out of this hole? I’m glad you asked.

LSC: Let’s Get with the Program
The current government administration has committed to expand civil legal aid on a federal level through increased funding to the LSC and the elimination of certain restrictions on whom it’s allowed to help.

Initiatives developed by the Justice Department like the Access to Justice Initiative and the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable help facilitate targeted federal grant programs. State funding is also increasing, as are more integrated systems across the country to support the delivery of help where it’s needed.

Technology: Advancing the Disadvantaged
Access to information about available legal help is becoming more obtainable than ever before through the internet and other technologies. Every state across the U.S. now has a website designed to provide community legal education information and resources for legal assistance.

Many even offer advanced functionalities like video conferencing to connect remote folks in need with local attorneys. In fact, just this past month, LSC announced a partnership with Microsoft and Pro Bono Net to create online statewide portals designed to provide a simple, “one-stop shop” for low income and vulnerable individuals searching for legal aid.

JurisDOC: Doing Our Part
In 2014, the LSC committed to providing “some form of assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential legal needs.” Taking advantage of available technologies is a huge part of that mission, which includes creating automated forms and legal documents to support self-help and limited scope legal assistance – which is a big part of what we are all about here at JurisDOC.

We want to help deliver justice into the hands of those who need it. That’s why we’re offering JurisDOC software to nonprofit legal aid providers—at no cost. Please share this post with any attorneys you know who are working for a nonprofit to provide legal aid services. Not involved in legal aid? You can still try JurisDOC in a 7-day free trial.

If you’d like more information about a free trial, feel free to contact me and check out our website.

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