What is civil legal aid?
According to the U.S. Dept of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, civil legal aid is free legal assistance to low- and middle-income people who have [non-criminal] legal problems. These problems are non-criminal; rather, civil legal aid helps people access basic necessities such as healthcare, housing, government benefits, employment and educational services. Civil legal aid is provided free of charge by nonprofit legal aid organizations, 'pro bono' volunteers (attorneys, law students and paralegals), law schools, court-based services such as self-help centers, and online technologies such as document assembly and legal information websites.
IPA partnered with the Indiana Bar Foundation on the creation of three issue briefs on Civil Legal Aid and its possibilities for foundation work. We are pleased to present these issue briefs below.
Civil legal services help low and moderate-income people with housing problems. Many times people don’t see their housing problems as legal problems. A low-income family concerned with eviction or unsafe conditions in its home is more likely to see these conditions as personal, financial, social or bad luck problems rather than legal ones. Helping connect civil legal assistance with people in need helps solve housing problems and builds stronger communities. People who get legal help receive better housing outcomes than people who do not. For example, one study cited on the Dept. of Justice website found that 51% of tenants in eviction proceedings without lawyers lost their homes, while only 21% of tenants with lawyers lost possession
Civil legal aid takes the form of paid legal aid lawyers, volunteer (pro bono) attorneys, law school and community legal clinics, or access to important legal information and forms. One great need for people dealing with family safety issues is legal triage. When faced with a significant threat, civil legal assistance can help parties to understand whether they need a lawyer to represent them, one who can offer discrete or short-term advice and assistance, or one who can direct them to the right legal information and court forms, such as orders of protection.
Over the past seven years, there has been a sharp increase in consumer fraud and scams, predatory lending, and unfair debt collection practices. Predatory lending is "any lending practice that imposes unfair or abusive loan terms on a borrower. It is also any practice that convinces a borrower to accept unfair terms through deceptive, coercive, exploitative, or unscrupulous actions for a loan that a borrower doesn't need, doesn't want, or can't afford." Many low-income debtors are especially vulnerable to debt scams, including high up-front fees, penalties for early payoffs, inflated interest rates, and "deals" targeting senior citizens, low-income borrowers, and people with poor credit.