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Equal Access to Justice


Despite the number of providers, civil legal aid cannot meet the need for services. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 statistics on poverty, 63 million Americans—one in five—qualified for free civil legal assistance. Unfortunately, more than 50 percent of those seeking help are turned away because of the limited resources available. These statistics describe only those below the poverty line and do not reflect the tens of millions of moderate income Americans who also cannot afford legal help

Equal Access to Justice, also known as Civil Legal aid is free legal assistance to low- and middle-income people who have civil legal problems.  These problems are non-criminal; rather, civil legal aid helps people access basic necessities such as health care, housing, government benefits, employment, and educational services. Many people are surprised to learn that the right to a lawyer is limited to criminal cases.

While there is still a need for further research on the impact of having access to civil legal aid, many studies show that people who get legal help, across a range of problems, receive better outcomes than people who do not. For example, in housing cases, a randomized control trial found that 51% of tenants in eviction proceedings without lawyers lost their homes, while only 21% of tenants with lawyers lost possession; and, the research of two economists indicates that the only public service that reduces domestic abuse in the long term is women's access to legal assistance.

The type of legal assistance available through civil legal aid programs includes:

  • Accessing basic necessities including government benefits and disaster services (SNAPSchool Lunch ProgramSCHIPTANFSSI, disability, veterans, FEMA); housing (loans to repair, foreclosure, eviction, unsafe housing, subsidized housing benefits); and health care (Medicaid, Medicare, Affordable Care Act).

  • Ensuring safety and stability including individual safety (domestic violence, stalking or other harassment, elder abuse, child abuse and neglect); family law (child support, adoption, guardianship, divorce); and keeping children and youth in school (student discipline hearings, accommodations).

  • Supporting individuals’ economic security including employment (proper payment for work performed, safe working conditions, securing drivers/professional licenses, accommodations for people with disabilities); taxes (filing and obtaining low-income tax credits); and consumer protection (consumer fraud and scams, predatory lending, unfair debt collection practices and managing debt).

Civil legal aid refers to both free legal advocacy and legal information for low- and middle-income people to help address the civil legal problems they may face.  This can take many forms, including:

  • Direct services by legal aid attorneys and pro bono volunteers such as legal representation in a court proceeding, and legal advice to help identify legal issues and possible solutions.

  • Identifying and addressing systemic issues such as comprehensive data collection and helping to identify solutions to problems faced by a large number of people.

  • Self-help and community education delivered via workshops, telephone help lines, medical/legal partnerships, online information and chat tools, and downloadable court forms, all of which help people understand their rights and responsibilities, when legal assistance may be needed and where to find it, and get assistance with self-representation when necessary.

Orpe Human Rights Advocates provided free-of-charge legal aid through its network composed of “pro bono” volunteers (attorneys, intern law students, and well-trained paralegals).

Orpe Human Rights Advocates Legal Aid for low-income Program is funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which distributes more than 90 percent of its total Congressional appropriation to 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with more than 800 offices serving every county and territory in the country.  LSC Is headed by a bipartisan board of directors whose 11 members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  LSC-funded programs help people who live in households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines.

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