JIWLP Legal Information

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Legal Assistance

What Is Legal Assistance?

Originating well before the 20th century with roots in European countries, free legal services were seen as necessary to provide justice for people who could not afford to pay an attorney. For many years, the U.S. considered it part of the welfare state. Around the mid-20th century, individual goals and rights were recognized and an effort was made to give low-income people financial help with legal problems.

The goal of legal assistance is to assure that all low-income Americans receive legal services to be sure they are afforded justice both in civil matters and in criminal matters.

To qualify for legal assistance, the household income cannot be more than 125 percent above federal poverty level. For 2011, with one person in the household, that amount was $13,613 unless you lived in Alaska ($17,000) or Hawaii ($15,675). There are some exceptions to this, but it cannot be more than 200 percent above federal poverty level. The U.S. Constitution provides for legal representation in criminal cases for people who cannot afford it, but there is no provision for civil cases.

Why Does Anyone Need Legal Assistance?

The unfortunate reality is that not everyone who needs legal assistance is capable of recognizing the need. Recognizing a need is paramount to getting legal assistance. Usually any organization contacted must know what area of law is involved. Not all attorneys deal in all aspects of the law; most are specializing today. If the need is civil, there are many cases where a person needs legal assistance:

  • facing a divorce
  • suffering abuse
  • concerned about not receiving the child support money
  • facing losing their home through a foreclosure
  • having trouble with their landlord
  • facing bankruptcy.

These are all causes for needing legal assistance. These are just a small sample of the reasons a person needs an attorney to help them.

Where Does One Get Legal Assistance?

There are several sources of legal assistance available to a person or household with limited income. Non-profit organizations were probably the forerunners of legal assistance. The National Legal Aid & Defender Association was founded in 1911. A person needing legal assistance can contact that organization for the name of a pro bono attorney. Their Division of Civil Legal Services keeps a list of these attorneys and will see that the person receives assistance.

Congress legislated into existence the Legal Services Corporation in 1974. The LSC receives funding from the U.S. to help low-income households with legal needs.

LSC distributes their money, through grants, to 136 independent nonprofits that provide legal assistance from more than 900 offices nationwide. Their research indicates that 58 percent of the attorneys who furnish legal aid are in LSC-funded nonprofits. They estimate that only 20 percent of the people needing legal assistance receive it. Their research also shows that one attorney who furnishes legal assistance serves 6,861 people, while one private attorney serves 525 in the general population.

States are also heavily involved in providing legal assistance. If they were not, the low-income people in Montana, for example, would need to go further for help. With the high gasoline prices, low-income people are hampered further if they must go a great distance to receive legal help. Montana is the 4th largest state with an area equal to the country of Japan. It has the 44th largest population. Montana only has one LSC-funded location, but the state has services also. The web site www.courts.mt.gov has a Montana Legal Resource Directory listing attorneys, by type of case, who offer free or limited-fee services.