Justice Gap Initiatives

The Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) national initiative that measures the gap between the need for civil legal assistance among low-income Americans and the resources available to meet that need.

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Introduction

The phrase “with liberty and justice for all” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance represents the idea that everyone should have access to justice, not just those who can afford legal representation. In criminal cases, legal assistance is a right. Americans accused of a crime are appointed legal counsel if they cannot afford it. As a general matter, however, there is no right to counsel in civil matters. As a result, many low-income Americans “go it alone” without legal representation in disputes where they risk losing their job, their livelihood, their home, or their children, or seek a restraining order against an abuser.

The need for basic civil legal assistance for people who cannot afford to pay for it is overwhelming. Every day, thousands of people come to LSC-funded legal aid organizations for help. In a normal year, LSC grantees have the resources to fully serve only a small proportion of those who come to them for help and are forced to turn many away without providing any help.

The Coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted poor and low-income families. It is likely that the need for civil legal assistance among low-income Americans has increased significantly since March 2020.

The Legal Services Corporation, the single largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States, is committed to its mission of funding civil legal assistance for Americans who would be otherwise unable to afford it. The Justice Gap study is a key part of LSC’s advocacy efforts to spotlight the importance of, and need for more, civil legal aid. 

The 2022 Justice Gap Study

The 2022 Justice Gap study is an ambitious project. To better understand the extent of civil legal need, LSC is again partnering with NORC at the University of Chicago, surveying 4,000 American households to provide an up-do-date baseline measure of civil legal need and insights into help-seeking behaviors of people facing civil legal problems, like eviction, foreclosure, domestic violence, and child custody disputes. Additionally, LSC grantees will track all the people who come to them for help and how many are turned away. The surveys will be in the field in October 2021, and the report documenting our findings will be released in March 2022.

The Justice Gap in America

The 2022 Justice Gap study is the fourth such study LSC has undertaken. The first study was published in 2005 and showed that for every person helped by LSC-funded organizations, another was turned away because they  did not have sufficient resources to help. The second Justice Gap study, published in 2009 using the same methodology as the 2005 study, confirmed that the justice gap among low-income Americans remained just as large as it had been in 2005. 

In 2017, LSC released a third, comprehensive, Justice Gap report entitled: The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans.” For the 2017 report, LSC developed a more expansive methodology that included a national survey of low-income households administered by NORC at the University of Chicago. The report revealed a larger justice gap than previous studies: in the prior year, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help at all.

The 2017 Justice Gap Study also found that 71% of low-income households in the country had experienced at least one civil legal problem in the prior year. One in four low-income households experienced six or more civil legal problems, including 67% of households with survivors of domestic violence or sexual abuse. These problems included critical issues such as veterans’ benefits, domestic violence, disability access, poor housing conditions, debt issues and health.

Intake Census Resources

Over a four-week period in October 2021, all LSC-funded programs will track the number of issues people come to them for help with and the level of civil legal assistance, if any, the grantee is able provide. Guidance for LSC grantees on how to conduct the intake census, including instructions, the collection instrument, and detailed FAQs is available at the link below.

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