The Continuation of the Vital Legal Services Program

By Alan Houseman

[Part 4 of the series on the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation]

We are continuing our blog on the War on Poverty and the Federal Legal Services Program with an emphasis on 40 years of federal legal services under the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). This series will examine each of the fundamental objectives for LSC set out in the Statement of Purpose of the LSC Act. Here we will focus on the objective: to “continue the present vital legal services program.”lsc_logo

My first blog described the structure created by the Office of Legal Services within the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The structure put in place by OEO was carried over fundamentally unchanged by the Legal Services Corporation board and staff when it began to function in 1975. Then LSC expanded the program to reach every county in the country by using the OEO model of one staff attorney program for a particular geographic area. LSC also expanded representation to Native Americans and migrant farm workers by continuing and increasing those separately funded and structured delivery systems.

LSC also retained, reorganized and expanded the support structure. Between 1976 and 1981, it brought certain functions in-house, as required by the original 1974 Act (Green Amendment) and created an Office of Program Support and a Research Institute. These provided training, technical assistance, and a range of other support tools such as manuals, poverty law research and new issue development. The National Clearinghouse which published the Clearinghouse Review was also brought in-house.


Excerpt from the LSC Annual Report, 1981, p. 11.

shriver_centerIn 1982, the National Clearinghouse became an independent entity that now is known as the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. The Research Institute was eliminated. Training and technical assistance was granted out to regional training centers and NLADA.

It is truly remarkable that the basic structure of the program remained in place without significant change until 1996. At that time, Congress eliminated $25 million in funding for support and training, created a new system of competitive bidding for grants and imposed a host of new restrictions on whom programs could serve and what could be done for those eligible to be served. The regional training centers, national support centers and state support centers no longer received direct LSC funding.

In part, continuation of the fundamental framework for the program was due to the effectiveness of the structure in delivering legal assistance and to Congressional support for the basic elements of the program. Perhaps equally important, the legal services system had become an accepted and somewhat entrenched bureaucracy, supported by local bar associations, operating with very structured administrative systems and capable of preserving itself against outside and inside attack.

Overall, it was very important to maintain the OEO structure when LSC took over the federal program to insure that an effective and economical program continued. Moreover, it was far easier to expand by using an existing and accepted model that was supported by both the organized bar and the Congress.

The OEO structure ensured that the attorneys who represented the poor specialized in poverty law and that they had access to state and national support, technical assistance, training and information about poverty law developments.

Since 1996 the basic structure that was originally put in place has changed and adapted to respond to a number of factors. Some change was necessitated by federal funding reductions, the imposition of restrictions on who can be served and what can be done for those eligible to be served and the changes in federal funding for the support structure. As a result of these changes, the number of LSC providers has been sharply reduced from over 300 to 134 because of forced mergers and reconfigurations. In a number of geographic areas, there is more than one full-service provider and there are a number of large non-LSC funded programs (e.g., Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, Greater Boston Legal Services, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and Columbia Legal Services) that now operate where only LSC programs once operated.

The national support structure has been fully privatized and often operates somewhat independent of the legal aid programs it once served. Many of the national support centers funded in 1995 still exist. Many are thriving and have become highly regarded institutions within the anti-poverty national policy world (e.g., National Immigration Law Center, National Employment Law Center, National Housing Law Center, National Consumer Law Center, National Health Law Program, National Senior Citizens Law Center, National Center for Youth Law and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice). The state support system has changed in many states as well with fewer entities providing training and support and more engaged in state policy advocacy and direct affirmative litigation. However, many key state support centers still exist and are thriving (e.g., Western Center on Law and Poverty, Massachusetts Law Reform) and new centers have developed (e.g., Tennessee Justice Center, Michigan Poverty Law Project, Colorado Center on Law and Poverty).

Civil legal aid also recognized the need to utilize information technology more effectively and the need to expand access to more eligible clients within ongoing resource constraints. Technological innovation in virtually all states has led to the creation of Web sites that offer community legal education information, pro se legal assistance, and other information about the courts and social services. Most legal aid programs now have Web sites with over 300 sites. All states have a statewide website, most of which also contain information useful both to advocates and clients. Dozens of national sites provide substantive legal information to advocates; other national sites support delivery, management, and technology functions. Many program, statewide, and national websites are using cutting-edge software and offering extensive functionality. I-CAN projects in many states use kiosks with touch-screen computers that allow clients to produce court-ready pleadings and access to other services, such as help with filing for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Video conferencing is being used in Montana and other states to connect clients in remote locations with local courthouses and legal services attorneys.

Moreover, increasing numbers of legal aid programs across the country, in partnership with the courts and legal community, are using document assembly applications, most notably HotDocs, to expand and make more efficient the provision of legal services to clients.   These projects generally focus on the use of document assembly for pro se resources used by the public and automated documents used by legal aid staff to more efficiently represent their clients. A2J Author uses HotDocs Online software to assist self-represented litigants in a web mediated process to assess eligibility, gather pertinent information to prepare a set of simple court forms, and then deliver those forms ready to be signed and filed.

In addition, there has been a rapid expansion of efforts by courts, legal aid providers, and bar associations to help people who are attempting to represent themselves in courts. Civil legal aid programs are devoting substantial time and resources to address the issue of assistance to pro se litigants. Many legal aid programs throughout the country operate self-help programs independently or in conjunction with courts. Some programs provide only access to information about the law, legal rights, and the legal process in written form, on the internet, on videotape, through seminars, or through in-person assistance. Other programs actually provide individualized legal advice and often provide also legal assistance in drafting documents and advice about how to pursue cases. Often, programs provide both printed and internet-accessible forms for use by persons without legal training, and they may provide also assistance in completing the forms.

A critical part of expanding access has focused on a range of limited legal assistance initiatives to provide less than extended representation to clients who either do not need such extended representation in order to solve their legal problems or live in areas without direct access to lawyers or entities available to provide extended representation. Many legal aid programs now operate legal hotlines. Finally, more and more states have a central phone number (or several regional phone numbers) that clients can call to be referred to the appropriate program or to obtain brief advice about their legal problems.

LSC has been instrumental in encouraging innovative technology through its Technology Initiative Grants Program (TIG). Since its inception on 2000, TIG has funded more than 570 projects at more than $46 million. LSC has recently set out a broad strategy to expand access in its “Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice” ( The strategy for achieving this includes five components: First, create unified “legal portals” in each state that direct persons needing legal assistance to the most appropriate form of assistance and guide self-represented litigants through the entire legal process via an automated “triage” process; second, deploy sophisticated but easy-to-use document-assembly applications to support the creation of legal forms and documents by both legal services providers and self-represented litigants; third, take advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively; fourth, apply business process analyses to all access-to-justice processes to make them as efficient as practicable; and fifth, develop “expert systems” and checklists to assist lawyers and other services providers.

Expanding access through technology is not the only innovation that developed within the civil legal aid community. Another successful innovation had been Medical Legal Partnerships (M LP). MLPs integrate lawyers into the health care setting to help patients navigate the complex legal systems that often hold solutions to many social determinants of health – income supports for hungry families, utility shut-off protection during cold winter months, and mold removal from the home of asthmatics.

Doctors and lawyers are now partnered at over 190 hospitals and health centers in 40 states nationwide, in Pediatrics, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Oncology, and Geriatrics.   This new health care team addresses families’ unmet basic needs – for food, housing, income, education and stability – needs that families report to their doctors, but that have legal remedies. MLPs rely on legal aid agencies for case-handling and expertise and receive pro bono assistance from dozens of law firms across the U.S. Over 100 civil legal aid programs and over half of LSC-funded legal services programs have an active medical-legal partnership program. In addition, 45 private law firms are providing pro bono assistance for MLP programs, over 44 law schools are engaged in MLP activities; and more than 20 post-graduate law fellows have been funded to work in medical-legal partnerships.

A National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership supports local programs in their efforts to reorient legal interventions into the health care setting for early detection, prevention and efficiency in legal matters in order to maximally impact health and legal outcomes of patients, their families and the community. In 2008, the ABA established a national support center to assist medical-legal partnerships in securing pro bono participation, promoting best practices related to MLP-pro bono practice, and ensuring quality service delivery.

The fundamental question today is not whether the delivery system of the past can change and adapt, because it has shown that it can and has done so effectively. The fundamental question is whether more far reaching changes are necessary in the structure of the civil legal assistance system to increase funding for civil legal aid, to respond to the changed legal needs of clients and to ensure continued evolution of new and innovative approaches to efficient and effective support and delivery.

My own view is that maintaining the existing system is essential to ensuring equal justice for low-income people in the United States. Our goal is not solely access to the courts, but also to help improve opportunities for, and achieve the greatest possible benefits and systemic solutions for, low-income people. Our goal is equal justice for our primary clients – the low-income people of our country.

To be clear, civil legal aid is not solely about access. It is also about providing legal advice and representation to solve the legal problems of low-income people. It is about addressing the problems of low-income people that arise from the economic, racial and social status. Civil legal aid programs should help low-income clients:

  • Connect to benefits, services, employment, education and housing that help lift them out of poverty.
  • Avert costs that could drive them into poverty or increase their existing poverty.
  • Stabilize their lives so that they can move out of poverty.
  • Disentangle from administrative systems that prevent them from receiving benefits and services to which they are entitled.

How we help clients achieve these results must evolve as we move forward. What we do to achieve effective representation will require constant innovation and experimentation. We must create a climate of flexibility where programs feel they can take greater risks to develop innovative approaches to problem solving. Once this climate is established, funders should then evaluate the innovations and build on and replicate those innovations that work.

What works in one state may not work in another. We must seek new methods of delivery, such as medical legal partnerships. We must consider new legal strategies for achieving results whether they are in the courts or the policy making branches. We must also constantly explore how best to utilize all of the resources at our disposal and through collaboration including pro bono assistance from small firms, solo practitioners, large firms and corporate legal offices as well as law students and law schools, non-lawyers, public and private social service agencies, community groups and others.

The key challenge for civil legal aid program leadership is how to apportion scare resources among many competing activities that programs could be involved in. Some resources must go to access initiatives such as websites, hotlines, video conferencing, Access to Justice Author (“A2J Author”) and many others including those set out in the LSC Technology Summit. However, resources must also be allocated to the provision of legal representation by lawyers and paralegals to provide representation to individuals to resolve their legal problems and to achieve the greatest possible benefits and systemic solutions for other low-income people.

Alan Houseman is the former executive director of CLASP and emeritus senior fellow of the organization, and the president of the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library. The opinions presented in this blog series are his own.


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