This module helps bridge the gap between what researchers can tell us and what policymakers need to know about how civil legal aid can both help individuals and make existing programs more effective. Continue reading to see the evidence base for how legal aid can help children, individuals with disabilities, domestic violence survivors, law enforcement, and returning citizens among others.
Each brief begins with research highlights of the curated studies, followed by a narrative overview describing the topic covered within the brief and how civil legal aid makes a difference for those affected (e.g., the state of domestic violence in the U.S. and how civil legal aid makes a difference for survivors), featured federal resources (when available), additional resources, and summaries, methodologies, and key findings of studies.
We have also collected past issues of our JGP and NLADA co-authored newsletter Just Research, which presents research on how legal aid improves outcomes for people and communities, useful data sources, legislative updates, and sources of federal funding that can support legal aid.
Why This Matters to Policymakers
A wide range of government programs work at maximum efficiency when people have access to legal services. Employment rates and wages go up and recidivism goes down following legal help to expunge or seal a criminal record. For low-income tenants in Massachusetts facing eviction who had full representation, approximately two-thirds remained in their homes compared to one-third of unrepresented tenants. More survivors of domestic violence break the cycle of violence if they get a restraining order against an abusive partner and legal custody of their children.
But most Americans don’t know what legal aid is, nor do they identify their problems as having legal solutions. One study found that two-thirds of Americans reported at least one civil justice problem arising from their employment, insurance, housing, or finances, but only 16 percent of them sought out a lawyer. Identifying how civil justice problems can and do have legal solutions increases the likelihood that people will use legal services.
Worse yet, even when someone who qualifies for free legal aid seeks help, approximately half are turned away because of lack of resources. Every state reports being unable to serve all people who seek legal help.
That lack then becomes a policymaker's problem, too. As these research briefs show, having access to legal aid can make the difference between successful government programs and ineffective ones.
The Justice in Government Project (JGP) would like to acknowledge the following individuals for their constructive feedback and contributions to their areas of expertise in Module 1: Katherine Alteneder, Sharon Dietrich, Anna Fogel, John Greacen, Storey Dyer Kloman, John Pollock, J.J. Prescott, Erika Rikard, Zoë Root, Shivan Sarin, Sonja Starr, Monica Vaca, and Vivek Sankaran.
We began our search with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s excellent research repository, studies identified in the U.S. Department of Justice Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit and First Annual Report to the President, Google Scholar using keyword searches, and database searches, including Public Administration Abstracts, JSTOR, Sociological Abstracts, Social Services Abstracts, and Academic Search Premier. We also reached out to leaders in a variety of substantive areas for their suggestions about sources to include. We also used the bibliographies and references to other research studies, which we gathered through government publications and peer-reviewed research.
Most cited studies were published in peer-reviewed academic journals and law reviews. Those not included in peer-reviewed academic journals and law reviews are reports and evaluations by organizations such as the Urban Institute, NPC Research, the Brookings Institution, and reports commissioned by a bar association or the courts. While most studies are recent, some are from earlier decades and are included either because they are seminal works or because of the paucity of relevant research on the topic. With only a few exceptions, these briefs do not cover legal needs assessments or return on investment (ROI) studies. The American Bar Association has helpfully collected these studies.
Research brief (last updated February 25, 2020)
Approximately 75 million Americans, or about one-in-three adults, have a criminal record and almost half of U.S. children have one parent with a criminal record. Those with criminal records face significant barriers to employment, with an unemployment rate of approximately 27 percent. Having a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback for an interview by 50 percent for whites and 72 percent for African Americans. Some of these criminal records do not need to be following people the way that they are, based on the laws on the books. Legal aid can help those who are eligible for expungement and set-asides receive them and assist with reentry.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal needs associated with reentry, published in August 2019.
Research brief (last updated March 23, 2021)
On any given day, there are approximately 443,000 children in foster care. After spending time in foster care, children often experience emotional, social, and behavioral issues. When legal aid can address underlying causes of children entering foster care, like abuse and housing insecurity, it can prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. When children do enter court-supervised out-of-home care, studies show that for parents who have legal representation, their children experience less time spent in foster care, faster rates to adoption and guardianship, and increased parental presence in court.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal needs of children and parents involved in the foster care system, published in November 2019.
Read the JGP and NLADA's handout about how legal aid helps children in foster care and their parents (last updated April 2020).
Research brief (last updated February 25, 2021)
Evictions are landlord-initiated moves to expel tenants from their homes. Evictions are a leading cause of homelessness, and tenants often do not know their legal rights or have legal representation in eviction hearings. When they do have access to legal representation, they are more likely to remain housed and have their children stay in school. Legal representation can also help them improve housing conditions, such as reducing mold and other housing code and safety violations.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on how civil legal aid can help those facing housing instability and eviction, published in June 2020, and a February 2021 housing newsletter update.
Research brief (last updated November 4, 2020)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 36.4 percent of women and 33.6 percent of men in the US have been the victim of intimate partner violence (IPV) or domestic violence (DV). Individuals who have experienced DV display a multitude of legal needs. They may require assistance with filing protection orders, custody issues, housing, identity theft, and reducing barriers to keeping a job. Legal aid can help in each of these areas.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal needs of survivors of domestic violence, with contributions from the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, published in July 2020.
Research brief (last updated September 30, 2020)
As of 2017, 27.7 million people (compared to more than 44 million in 2013) remain uninsured. Access to justice has been directly linked to health outcomes, where those with less access have been shown to have poorer health. Accessing legal aid services can improve access to healthcare, reduce medical debt, and improve health outcomes. Having access to and using legal aid services can reduce stress, improve the health of children, and assist vulnerable populations, like LGBTQ+ seniors.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on how civil legal aid improves health outcomes, published in September 2020.
Research brief (last updated February 8, 2020)
Between 10 to 15 percent of older Americans report experiencing elder abuse, though tragically its true prevalence is likely much higher. Elder abuse can take many forms, including neglect, financial exploitation, psychological or emotional abuse, or physical and sexual abuse. Abuse is more common in some subpopulations; for example, approximately 47 percent of those with dementia experience abuse. Legal aid can help with setting up powers of attorney, working with social services, and assisting with protective orders.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal needs of seniors, published in February 2020.
Research brief (last updated August 8, 2019)
There are high social and monetary costs associated with missed instructional time, suspension, expulsion, and drop out. Having access to self-help documents and legal advocacy can assist parents with receiving help for a child’s behavioral issues or overcoming procedural barriers to receiving benefits like free school meals. Child support, in comparison to other sources of income, has been shown to have one of the strongest effects on child educational outcomes. Legal aid services can help ensure that child support orders correctly reflect the ability to pay, increasing the likelihood that parents will make the payments.
Read the JGP and NLADA's handout about how legal aid helps those affected by the opioid crisis (last updated December 2019)
Among the nearly 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to opioids. Every day, 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms for opioid overdoses. The total economic burden is estimated to be $504 billion, $28.9 billion of which is due to health care costs. Including those in recovery and their extended family members, more than 11 million Americans are affected by the opioid crisis, with 2.1 million addicted. They need our help.
Policymakers know the current epidemic requires a multi-disciplinary response that includes law enforcement, doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, social workers, and case managers. But civil legal aid providers are also essential partners in solving one of America’s most pressing public health issues.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal associated with opioid use disorder, published in October 2019.
Research brief (last updated August 8, 2019)
12.6 percent of Americans have at least one disability and may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). However, the process for filing a disability claim and asking for a reconsideration if rejected can be difficult without a lawyer’s assistance. When individuals with disabilities have access to legal representation during this process, the likelihood that they will receive benefits increases and their SSI allowance is often greater.
Research brief (last updated May 18, 2020)
In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 1,923 criminal suspects were referred to U.S. attorneys for human-trafficking offenses, an increase of 41 percent since the last report. Of them, 729 were prosecuted. These numbers represent only a fraction of the problem and the Human Trafficking Hotline reports more survivors reaching out in search of resources each year. Human trafficking survivors often require assistance with safety planning, securing housing, accessing medical and mental health care, identifying appropriate educational resources to find employment opportunities, reducing the barriers to employment, and accessing benefits. Civil legal aid providers can help trafficking survivors access resources like housing, healthcare, employment, and benefits.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal needs of survivors of human trafficking, published in January 2020.
Research brief (last updated August 8, 2019)
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that law enforcement agencies include legal aid agencies among their partners to increase trust and keep communities safe. Legal aid can work with law enforcement in several ways, from reducing domestic violence, to protecting consumers, reducing recidivism, and keeping children in school.
Research brief (last updated November 4, 2020)
According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 1.7 percent of the U.S. population are American Indian, Alaska Native alone or in combination with another race. They also experience high rates of poverty. The median household income for AI/AN was $16,450 less than that of the U.S. Studies have shown that this population often experiences significant legal issues and has a multitude of unmet legal needs, including employment-related problems, and problems with rental housing, law enforcement, healthcare, and education.
Research brief (last updated July 30, 2019)
In civil proceedings, individuals are more likely than not to self-represent. Strikingly, in family law proceedings, 62 percent of individuals self-represent and in domestic violence cases, 80 percent of victims self-represent. Self-help services, a form of legal aid, have been found to significantly improve pro se litigants’ outcomes in certain settings. These services can increase access to information, promote public trust, increase court efficiency, and save money.
Research brief (last updated September 24, 2020)
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that on any given night, 37,878 veterans are homeless. The most recent Project CHALENG survey (2019) found that tor male and female homeless veterans, four of their top twelve unmet needs involve legal assistance. Studies on medical-legal partnerships have shown that embedding lawyers in medical settings can help veterans receive benefits due to them.
See also JGP's and NLADA's co-authored Just Research newsletter edition on the civil legal needs of veterans, published in September 2019.
Research brief (last updated October 29, 2020)
Debt, identity theft, and consumer finance are some of the most common legal issues Americans face. While common, more than 75 percent of those facing consumer finance issues do not seek legal help. Studies show that when alleged debtors receive legal representation, they are less likely to experience a default judgment.
The October 2020 "consumers" edition of JGP & NLADA's Just Research newsletter presents research showing how legal aid can protect consumers from "unfair and unconscionable" debt collection practices and the spiraling effects of debt.
Research brief (last updated April 1, 2021)
The Executive Office for Immigration Review reports that over 30 percent of the individuals in pending immigration proceedings were without legal representation in 2018. This figure drops to 14 percent for individuals in detention. When immigrants have legal representation, they are more likely to be released from detention and seek and obtain relief or termination of a case. When children have legal representation in immigration court, 73 percent remain in the U.S., compared to 15 percent of those who have no legal representation. Immigrants have better outcomes at every stage in the immigration court process when they have legal representation.
Just Research is a monthly newsletter that presents research on how legal aid improves outcomes for people and communities, useful data sources, legislative updates, and sources of federal funding that can support legal aid. Sign up for Just Research here. Previous issues are linked below.
No. 1 - Reentry (August 2019)
No. 2 - Veterans (September 2019)
No. 3 - Opioids (October 2019)
No. 4 - Foster care (November 2019)
Special Edition - Foster Care Factsheet (December 2019)
No. 5 - Human trafficking (January 2020)
No. 6 - Elder justice (February 2020)
No. 8 - Housing (June 2020)
No. 9 - Domestic Violence (July 2020)
No. 11 - Health and MLPs (September 2020)
No. 12 - Consumers (October 2020)
No. 13 - 2020 "Wrap-Up", Special End-of-Year Edition (December 2020)
No. 14 - Housing Update (February 2021)
No. 15 - Virtual Mediation Study & JGP Announcement (April 2021)
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Karlee Naylon and Karen Lash published an article in the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) law journal, The Guardian, explaining how legal aid can help prevent families' legal issues from escalating into what the child welfare system would deem 'neglect' and grounds for a child's removal from the home.
Karlee Naylon and Karen Lash published an article in the April 2020 edition of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children's Bureau newsletter. It explains how legal aid can help prevent families' legal issues from escalating and provides examples of how states can utilize federal funds to support legal services to keep families together.
Casey Chiapetta and Karen Lash published a special feature article in the MIE Journal about how civil legal aid can use federal funds to support partnerships that help individuals whose lives are affected by SUDs. While overlooked in public health issues, legal aid is an essential partner in addressing and reducing the impact of the United States' opioid crisis in areas such as recovery, permanency, housing and employment.