Funders of legal services bring their best thinking on how to use law to better the lives of everyone who’s got it the hardest in the region. NCG provides a home for this thinking. NCG’s manager of collaborative philanthropy, Michelle Bermudez and members of the Legal Service Funders Network (LSFN) steering committee, answered questions about the network and reflected on their upcoming program, Access to Justice: The Changing Landscape of Legal Civil Representation & Assistance.
Many of us have heard the term “Legal Aid” before. Can you explain what it really means?
Yali: Despite popular belief that “if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you,” free legal aid only applies for those charged in criminal crimes, not those fighting civil injustices–whether that is an unlawful eviction, denial of benefits, or access to health care. Civil legal aid helps ensure some equity in the justice system and typically provides representation for those who are at 125% of the poverty level or below, though certain types of civil legal aid such as online resources or self-help centers are also available for those moderate or middle income individuals who simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
It’s great to know these resources exist in the name of equity! How can one access these resources and who is eligible to receive Legal Aid?
Chris: Legal Aid service organizations were established to help individuals and families who live at or below federal poverty measures protect their income, housing, health care, safety, and civil rights. In this way, legal aid provides significant humanitarian and economic support to our society.
Why aren’t more people accessing this resource?
Yali: Legal proceedings are complicated for anyone who is healthy and educated, but some of toughest legal challenges are faced by children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, those who speak English as a second language or victims of domestic violence.
Poverty can lead to minor offenses like not paying fines which can lead to incarceration. There are even fines and fees charged for a parent when their children are incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities.
I see that LSFN is bringing some of the most experienced Legal Aid advocates including the National Coalition for the Right to Civil Counsel and Rocket Lawyer to speak at this program. Rocket Lawyer is new to us, what's that about?
Chris: Rocket Lawyer is a company that helps people research their legal options and assemble legal documents online. Rocket Lawyer generally charges a fee, but uses a platform that can provide affordable resources to countless users across the country. This software-based approach has its limits–for example, some people need a lawyer to fully represent them–but is a potentially powerful way to reduce the justice gap.
What is a justice gap and how big is the one we're facing?
Yali: Only about 20% of legal needs are met through civil legal aid. This aid is funded by public and private sources. Public support is a combination of federal, state, and county funds. Private support can come from charitable donations and foundation grants as well as volunteer hours from private law firms, law students and others.
How does legal aid address the justice gap?
Yali and Chris: Legal aid evens the playing field by providing a legal voice to the voiceless. While some private attorneys provide pro bono (i.e. volunteer) legal services, legal aid programs are the primary resource for low-income people who cannot afford representation in civil cases.
How can Philanthropy get involved?
Yali: In the past decade, funding for civil legal aid has been in a state of crisis because, while more people are poor and seeking legal help to meet their basic needs, state and federal funding has leveled or decreased. Philanthropy can make strategic investments in legal aid organizations by:
Telling the story: As bi-partisan, trusted conveners, philanthropy can share the story of why they support legal aid through funder convenings and mass media, etc. Many of the key programs for low income people over the past 45 years has been led or strengthened by legal aid programs throughout the country. They can be essential to implementing effective policy and programs at the local level.
Services to clients: Philanthropy can help legal aid groups reach more of their clients, by developing publications in multiple languages, improving their website and online presence, use of social media, using pro bono or law students more effectively, etc.
Supporting policy reform and advocacy: Legal aid groups have deep roots in communities and are effective problem solvers. Philanthropy can partner with these groups by mobilizing multiple constituencies to tackle complex problems.
Basic infrastructure support: Legal aid groups could use the support of creative fundraising strategies ex: crowd sourcing, purchasing a building, creating fellowships or an endowment.
This program is a part of LSFN. Does the network hold many programs like this? Do I have to be a member to attend?
Chris: LSFN holds events like this throughout the year to encourage learning and discourse about legal services funding. Many of their events, including this one, are open to everyone. You can always check out NCG’s website for upcoming programs or visit us at http://legalservicesfundersnetwork.org/