Overview of methods for funding and delivering legal aid in the United States
A group of people, some with disabilities, walk in front of a building that says Department of Justice.

Disability activists at the U.S. Department of Justice during the RightsNow! conference in September of 2016

Legal Aid in the United States

The purpose of legal aid is to provide free legal services to low income Americans. Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness in the justice system, regardless of how much money one has. Equal justice under law is a fundamental American value. In the United States, legal aid is primarily funded through three sources: 

  • Federal:     Legal Services Corporation
  • Private:      Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA)
  • State:         State Legislatures

Legal aid includes direct legal advocacy and representation and legal information. Direct services can be representation by legal aid staff attorneys or volunteers from private law firms. Attorneys may provide legal representation in a court or administrative proceeding, and legal advice to help identify legal issues and possible solutions. Other legal aid activities are:

  • Assistance identifying and addressing systemic issues such as collecting data and helping to identify solutions to problems faced by a large number of people
  • Helping individuals help themselves by providing workshops on different legal issues (such as renter’s rights, obtaining government benefits), telephone help lines, online information, and chats, all of which help people understand their rights and responsibilities

Legal Services Corporation – Federally Funded Legal Aid

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is the largest funder of legal services. LSC provides funding for civil legal assistance to low-income individuals with and without disabilities. The U.S. Congress provides funding through the U.S. Budget. In 2016, the LSC budget was US $486,900,000. LSC awards grants through a competitive process and funds 133 independent nonprofit legal aid organizations. The funds are distributed to each of the states depending on their population. California is the most populous state and receives about $53 million. LSC provides funding for legal services on a range of civil matters. For example, landlord-tenant issues, domestic abuse, assisting military families, accessing federal benefits (such as Social Security, housing for people who are low-income, food assistance programs).

Eligibility for LSC Legal Aid

LSC is specifically aimed at helping low-income plaintiffs who cannot afford lawyers. An individual is eligible for legal aid services if their household income is below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level. In 2017, an individual qualifies for legal aid if they earn less than $15,075.

When a legal organization accepts LSC funding from the federal government it cannot do the following:

  • Lobby government offices, agencies or legislative bodies with any funding
  • Representing people who are not U.S. citizens with limited exceptions such as lawful permanent residents, H2A agricultural workers, H2B forestry workers, and victims of battering, extreme cruelty, sexual assault or trafficking
  • File class actions
  • Represent prisoners
  • Represent people who are being evicted from public housing because they face criminal charges of selling or distributing illegal drugs

Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA)

Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) is a method for funding legal aid. Interest from lawyer trust accounts is pooled to provide civil legal aid to the poor. In the United States, when a lawyer receives funds that belong to a client, those funds must be deposited in a trust account separate from the lawyer's own money. Each state has IOLTA-funded legal services.

Eligibility for IOLTA Legal Aid

Each state sets its own eligibility and service guidelines. In the state of California, the California State Bar manages the IOLTA program. Individuals are eligible for services if they meet one of these requirements:

  • Income at or below 125% of federal poverty level
  • Qualify for services under federal Older Americans Act (no income requirements)
  • Have a developmental disability (no income requirements)

In California, there are two types of organizations funded by the State Bar IOLTA program:

  1. Nonprofit organizations that provide direct legal aid services to eligible individuals
  2. Nonprofit organizations called Support Centers have expertise in a specific area of law and provide consultation and assistance to direct legal aid organizations. For example, RightsNow! partner Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) shares expertise on disability rights law  

State Funded Legal Services

At least 38 states provide additional funding for legal aid services through their state budgets, and most states direct a percentage of court filing fees to fund legal aid. In California, the state budget allocates $15 million to legal services. Qualified nonprofit legal service organizations that receive IOLTA funding may apply for state funding through a grant application.

Eligibility for State Funded Legal Aid

Like IOLTA legal aid, each state sets the eligibility requirements and service guidelines for services funded by the state. In California, eligibility and service guidelines are the same. 

Delivery of Legal Aid Services

Free legal aid services are provided in the follow manners:

Community legal clinics:  Legal aid staff and volunteer attorneys hold regular clinics open to eligible legal service clients. Attorneys provide confidential information about legal rights on housing, employment, and public benefits.

Telephone help lines: Legal aid organizations provide confidential information or advice on the legal issues (such as housing, domestic violence, public benefits, etc.) supported by LSC, IOLTA, or other funding sources.

Trainings:  Legal aid attorneys lead workshops on legal rights in housing, domestic violence, public benefits, tenants’ rights, employment, disability rights, and other legal issues.

Appointments:  Individuals schedule an appointment to talk with legal aid attorneys. Some individuals may qualify for representation in court or administrative hearings.

Do-It-Yourself Toolkits: Legal aid organizations provide many tools online. Resources include topical legal guides, fact sheets, legal forms, sample letters, and instructional and informative videos.

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