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Lack of Legal Aid Looms Large for Low-Income Americans

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The United States easily takes the lead on the highest concentration of lawyers in the world; there's one lawyer for every 248 residents in the United States. So how is it, then, that the vast majority of Americans aren't getting the legal services they need, at least when it comes to civil cases? Recent reports show that this is largely due to the great lack of adequate legal aid resources in the country. We explore the nature of legal aid, and why it just isn't keeping up with the needs of so many low-income Americans with legal problems.

If you or someone you know has a potential legal problem but is afraid of the cost, visit our Legal Aid resource pages to learn more about whether you might qualify for free legal services and read about the different types of free legal services available.

Legal aid is a form of legal assistance that is provided to low-income individuals who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Legal aid programs provide a variety of services from advising you on your legal options to working through disputes out of court to representation in court.

Legal aid is funded through a variety of sources, but the largest source of funding comes from Legal Services Corporation (LSC). LSC is a nonprofit corporation established by Congress in 1974 and receives an annual appropriation from Congress. Over 90% of LSC's funds are then distributed to a network of 131 legal aid organizations with over 800 offices across the country. On average, more than one-third of the funding for any given legal aid across the country comes from LSC.

Another major source of legal aid funds come from what are called Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA). IOLTA programs collect interest on funds that lawyers hold in trust for their clients. This interest is then used to fund legal aid programs. Some states and localities provide funding for legal aid through their own budgets. Legal aid organizations also receive funding from private foundations, corporations, and individuals. Finally, legal aid organizations may also charge clients a small fee for their services. However, these fees are typically based on the client's ability to pay and are not intended to generate revenue.

What about the legal aid groups not funded by LSC? These are generally smaller organizations and often involve specialized legal practices, such as immigration or domestic violence. These organizations typically receive funding from a variety of sources, including private donations, foundations, and client fees. They may also receive funding from state or local governments. Some examples of LSC-independent legal aid groups are the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), the Legal Services Alliance of Michigan, and the Legal Aid Society of New York.

Because the services are typically provided at no cost or for a low fee, there is a high demand for legal aid. Clients must meet certain income eligibility requirements to qualify for legal aid, though the specific requirements vary depending on the legal aid program. In general, an applicant must show that their income is below a certain percentage of the federal poverty line. For example, programs funded by LSC require clients to have incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. In 2021, that was $16,100 for an individual or $33,125 for a family of four.

The demand for legal aid stems from the high rate of legal needs in general, but particularly among low-income households. LSC recently conducted its annual Justice Gap Study to look at the state of legal aid in the country. The study found that three-quarters of American households experienced at least one civil legal problem in 2021. 39% of these households experienced five or more legal issues, and 20% experienced 10 or more. The most common civil legal issues are related to housing, maintaining income, health care, and consumer issues. Women make up 70% of LSC-funded clients, and many of them are struggling to keep their children safe and their families together.

The Justice Gap

Reports throughout the past decade have called to light the disparity in the need for low-income legal services and the ability of legal aid organizations to match it. According to the Justice Index, a project of the Cardozo School of Law, there is only one legal aid lawyer for every 8,893 low-income individuals seeking legal help. As a result of these limited resources, legal aid organizations must turn away half of all requests they receive. The result is that poor people often are forced to face major life problems on their own, from the loss of their homes, benefits, and even children.

The past decade has indeed shown an increase in lawyers working at legal aid organizations funded by LSC. In 2013, there were 4,306 lawyers at such organizations, compared to 6,542 last year, a 52% increase. It's also true that there are other sources of free or subsidized legal services for low-income clients, such as pro bono cases taken by firms or individual lawyers, advocacy groups such as the ACLU, and law school legal clinics. But the other options simply aren't enough. Jesse Matsukawa, a staff attorney at Snohomish County Legal Services in Washington State, said: “There appears to be a lack of available pro bono attorneys as the need for civil legal aid has increased." The fact remains that 92% of low-income Americans aren't getting the civil legal help they need; the modest increase certainly isn't keeping pace with the demand.

A recent report from the American Bar Association (ABA) points to a number of factors for the scarcity of legal aid attorneys in the nation. A major factor is the fact that such attorneys generally get paid pretty poorly, at least compared to lawyers who work for private clients who pay sticker prices. According to the National Association for Law Placement, the median salary for legal aid attorneys in the country is $57,500; for those with 11 to 15 years of experience, it's $78,500. That is a tiny fraction of what lawyers at firms make.

The ABA report also highlights uneven funding to legal aid organizations as a factor. It notes that urban areas tend to do better than rural areas in terms of availability of legal aid resources, and attributes this to the challenges of attracting attorneys to rural areas.

The takeaways are not optimistic for low-income Americans that should have the misfortune of running into a major legal issue. One silver lining may be that at least for criminal cases, the right to an attorney makes it easier to find a public defender than in civil cases. If you find yourself against a potential civil law dispute, it's worth checking with your state's legal aid resources to see if you might qualify for legal aid.

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