80% of Poor Lack Civil Legal Aid, Study Says

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

At least 80 percent of low-income Americans who need civil legal assistance do not receive any, in part because legal aid offices in this country are so stretched that they routinely turn away qualified prospective clients, a new study shows.

Roughly 1 million cases per year are being rejected because legal aid programs lack the resources to handle them, according to the study, "Documenting the Justice Gap in America," by the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), which funds 143 legal aid programs across the country.

The 1 million cases do not include the many qualified people who do not ask a legal aid program for help -- because they do not know the programs exist, they do not know they qualify or they assume that the help is not available to them, the study shows. Nor does the figure include people who received some service -- including simple advice -- but not the level of service that they actually need, the study found.

Nationally, on average, low-income households experienced approximately one civil legal need per year. These legal needs arise out of the everyday problems of poor people -- matters relating to family law, housing, employment, government benefits or consumer problems, according to the LSC.

Left unresolved, these problems can affect and cost society much more than the expense of legal services to address them, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said.

But only 1 in 5 or less of all problems identified is addressed, either with the help of a private (paid or pro bono) or legal aid lawyer, the study found. For every client served by an LSC-funded program, at least one person seeking help will be turned down.

Poor people also have few options when it comes to legal help. The study determined that there is one legal aid lawyer per 6,861 low-income clients vs. one lawyer for every 525 persons in the general population.

Legal aid programs served slightly fewer than 1 million people in 2004, with family problems representing the largest category of cases (383,484). Family problems -- including domestic violence and abuse, custody issues, and problems involving social service agencies -- also represented the largest number of documented unmet cases (504,312). Housing problems were second, while income issues were third on the list of cases met and fifth on the list of problems that were unmet, after consumer issues and miscellaneous legal problems.

The LSC report was the culmination of a year-long study concluded in August 2005. As such, it does not reflect any of the increased need for legal assistance that will result from the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, not only in the states where the hurricanes struck but also in states across the nation where evacuees have relocated, Barnett said in a statement.

The LSC, which is funded entirely by Congress, requested about $363 million in its 2006 budget request, compared to $352.4 million requested for fiscal year 2005. Its final appropriation for 2005 was $330.8 million, after two across-the-board domestic budget cuts.

"The Justice Gap" report concluded that although state and private support for legal assistance to the poor has increased in the past two decades, stagnant or declining federal funding and an increasing poor population have combined to increase the unmet demand.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company