Civil legal aid (or just “legal aid”) is free civil legal assistance to low- and moderate-income people or underserved populations. Unlike the constitutional right to counsel when charged with a crime, in most instances there is no right to civil legal help even if a family faces an illegal eviction or foreclosure, a veteran can't obtain benefits, or a domestic violence survivor needs a protective order. Legal aid can take several forms, ranging from self-help legal tools and community education to full legal representation.
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What can legal aid do?
Legal aid can both help make already existing government programs more effective, efficient, and fair as well as help close the justice gap. Whether in a red state or blue, when governors call for reducing veteran homelessness, keeping more children in school, increasing access to healthcare, and stopping elder abuse, legal aid can help get the best results from the state’s programs and partners, often while saving scarce public funds.
A wide range of government programs work at maximum efficiency when people have access to legal services. 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 with 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. Having access to legal aid can make the difference between successful government programs and ineffective ones.
Who can legal aid help?
Most Americans don’t know what legal aid is nor do they identify their problems as having a legal solution. 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 a lawyer. Identifying how civil justice problems can and do have legal solutions increases the likelihood that people will use legal services. And matching the right services to solve people’s problems can make the difference between a successful government program, and not.
But identifying the problem is not enough. Approximately half of those who know they have a legal problem and attempt to seek out civil legal aid 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. Because when people get the help they need it can make an extraordinary difference. Legal aid providers can help workers receive unpaid wages or unemployment benefits to which they are entitled; expunge or seal criminal records; reinstate revoked or suspended driver’s licenses; help secure protection orders; advocate for individuals with disabilities; assist veterans with accessing healthcare, education grants, and housing; and assist with child support and child custody. Only when individuals identify their problems as being a legal problem and when there are adequate resources for legal aid service providers can legal aid help close the justice gap and ensure government programs work best for the people they aim to serve.
What's in this module?
This module helps bridge the gap between what researchers can tell us and what policymakers need to know about how 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 starts with a one-page summary of the document (e.g., one sentence highlights from key studies and links to helpful tools), followed by an introduction describing the problem (e.g., what is the state of our foster care system), and followed by more details, highlights from and links to key studies that show how legal aid can help (e.g., a study in Washington State that shows legal aid can double the rate to adoption for children in foster care).
How did we find the studies?
We began our search with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s excellent research repository, https://legalaidresearch.org/, studies identified in the US Department of Justice LAIR 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 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 here.
This Toolkit will continue to grow. To hear about updates and new tools or to provide feedback, send an email to email@example.com
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 transitions.
Individuals with disabilities can be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). 12.6 percent of Americans have a disability and may be eligible for these benefits. However, receiving benefits when due can often be challenging for individuals. 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.
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 domestic violence 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.
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. Of this, $28.9 billion 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.
Read the JGP and NLADA's handout about how legal aid helps those affected by the opioid crisis
There are high social, monetary costs associated with missed instructional time, suspension, expulsions, and drop out. For example, missing three or more days of school in fourth grade a month prior to taking a reading assessment predicts a reduction in reading achievement by one full grade level. Legal aid can help children stay in school, effectively avoiding suspensions and expulsions. Having access to self-help documents and legal advocacy can assist parents with receiving help for a child’s behavioral issues. Legal aid can also help parents overcome procedural barriers to receiving benefits, like free school meals, which allows their children to focus on their education, not where their next meal might be coming from. 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.
Between 10 to 15 percent of older Americans experience elder abuse. Elder abuse can take many forms and includes: 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 power of attorney, working with social services, and assisting with protective orders.
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.
27.6 million people as of 2016 (compared to more than 44 million in 2013) remain uninsured. Access to justice has been directly linked to health, 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 and using legal aid services can reduce stress, improve the health of children, and assist vulnerable populations, like LGBT seniors.
Evictions are landlord-initiated moves to expel tenants from their home. Evictions are a leading cause of homelessness. Tenants often do not know their legal rights and often do not 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 allergens.
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. 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.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that law enforcement agencies partner with legal aid agencies 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.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 1.7 percent of the U.S. population are American Indian, Alaska Native alone or in combination. They also experience high rates of poverty. The median household income for Native Americans was $16,450 less than the U.S. as a whole. Studies have shown that Native Americans often experience significant legal issues and have a multitude of unmet legal needs. Native Americans are more likely to experience employment-related problems, and problems with rental housing, law enforcement, healthcare, and education.
This research brief focuses on how self-help services improve pro se litigants’ outcomes and increase access to justice. 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. These services increase access to information, promote public trust, increase court efficiency, and save money.
This research brief discusses how legal aid can reduce veteran homelessness and improve veteran health. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that on any given night, 40,056 veterans are homeless. The most recent CHALENG survey found that tor male and female homeless veterans, five of their top eleven 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.
Debt, identity theft, and consumer finance are some of the most common legal issues facing Americans. 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 judgement.
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. When children have legal representation in immigration court, 73 percent remain in the U.S., compared to 15 percent who have no legal representation. Immigrants have better outcomes at every stage in the immigration court process when they have legal representation.