Legal Aid Supports The Rule of Law
The U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a lawyer when someone is accused of a crime. But there is no constitutional right to an attorney when someone faces a civil action. For example, unless you can afford legal assistance, you are on your own to prevent unlawful foreclosure, obtain a protective court order against an abusive spouse, fight for custody of your children, or secure veterans’ benefits earned from military service. It is very challenging to navigate the legal system on your own. Legal assistance is critical to protecting the values of liberty and justice on which the United States was founded.
Legal Services Corporation
Congress created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974 to ensure that low-income individuals and families have access to assistance to resolve civil legal problems. Funding for LSC provides access to justice and due process of law for millions of low-income Americans every year. Today, LSC is the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country. As a grant-making organization, LSC distributes nearly 95% of our federal appropriation to eligible nonprofits delivering civil legal aid. LSC awards grants through a competitive process and currently funds 132 independent legal aid organizations with 855 offices serving every county in every state, the District of Columbia, and the territories.
LSC’s grantees serve thousands of low-income individuals, veterans, children, families, and seniors in every congressional district. LSC grantees handle the basic civil legal needs of low-income people, addressing matters involving safety, subsistence, and family stability. Most legal aid practices focus on family law, including domestic violence, child support and custody, and on housing matters, including evictions and foreclosures. Legal aid promotes individual empowerment and self-reliance by giving people the tools and knowledge to access the civil court system to protect and exercise their rights.
The United States Congress, in the declaration of purpose of the Legal Services Corporation Act, found that “there is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our Nation for individuals who seek redress of grievances,” that “there is a need to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel,” and that “providing legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel will serve best the ends of justice and assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons.”
LSC is governed by an 11-member Board of Directors, each of whom is appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate to serve a three-year term. By law, the Board is bipartisan; no more than six members may be of the same political party. In August 2019, the Senate confirmed eight presidential nominees to the Board, who were sworn by Chief Justice Roberts on October 2, 2019. Four of those appointees are new to the Board: Matthew D. Keenan of Kansas, Abigail L. Kuzma of Indiana, John G. Malcolm of the District of Columbia, and Frank X. Neuner Jr. of Louisiana. Four incumbent nominees were reappointed to the Board: Robert J. Grey, Jr., John G. Levi, Julie Reiskin, and Gloria Valencia-Weber. The remaining three holdover members who will continue to serve on the Board are Father Pius Pietrzyk, Victor B. Maddox, and Laurie Mikva. The Board is responsible for hiring the President of the Corporation; the President oversees LSC’s staff and is responsible for final approval of all awards made to the Corporation’s grantees. LSC’s senior management has considerable experience in both the public and private sectors.
Recent Initiatives to Improve Performance and Accountability
LSC conducts robust oversight of our grantees. To ensure grantee compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements and sound financial management practices, LSC conducts regular on-site fiscal and regulatory compliance reviews and investigations. LSC also assesses the quality of legal services our grantees deliver and provides training and technical assistance.
LSC is committed to strong management of, and accountability for, federal funds. LSC has adopted rigorous oversight, enforcement, and training to promote our grantees’ compliance with the requirements and restrictions Congress has enacted. In 2019, LSC took the following actions pursuant to our strategic plan to expand access to justice, improve performance, and enhance fiscal responsibility:
- Awarded Pro Bono Innovation Fund grants to 14 legal aid organizations in 14 states to expand pro bono legal services for low-income clients.
- Awarded Technology Initiative Grants to 30 legal services organizations in 20 states and territories to expand access to justice using technology.
- Awarded $14 million in disaster relief grants to 12 legal aid organizations to assist survivors of Hurricanes Michael and Florence; other hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, typhoons, volcanic activity, snowstorms; and wildfires occurring in calendar years 2018 and 2019.
- Hosted a congressional briefing on Legal Aid’s Importance to Domestic Violence Survivors in April in cooperation with Senator Sullivan (AK) highlighting the role of civil legal services in domestic violence cases. Speakers included LSC grantee experts from Alaska and Chicago, an in-house attorney from Discover Financial Services who provides pro bono services to domestic violence survivors, and a former legal aid client from Pittsburgh who received legal assistance after experiencing domestic violence.
In 2019, LSC leveraged the congressional investment in legal services with private support for the following projects:
- Released LSC’s Opioid Task Force Report in June at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center at an event sponsored by the House Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus. The report highlights the critical role legal aid plays to support individuals and families affected by the opioid epidemic and makes recommendations for strengthening that support. LSC’s Opioid Task Force was co-chaired by Board members Robert Grey and Victor Maddox, and by David Hoffman, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP. The work of the Task Force was supported with private funds contributed by Sidley Austin. Three of the Caucus co-chairs spoke at the release event: Representatives Susan Brooks (IN-5), Joseph P. Kennedy III (MA-4), and Fred Upton (MI-6). Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-1) also spoke, as well as members of the Task Force and leaders in the healthcare and legal communities. LSC also held forums to showcase the report’s findings in Chicago, Nashville, and San Francisco.
- Released LSC’s Disaster Task Force Report in September at an event sponsored by Senator John Cornyn (TX) at the Hart Senate Office Building. The report makes recommendations to promote better cooperation, coordination, and communication among the emergency management community, legal services providers, the private bar, the judiciary, community-based organizations, and the business community to ensure that low-income disaster survivors receive the legal assistance they need. LSC’s Disaster Task Force, which was co-chaired by Board members Martha Minow and the Rev. Pius Pietrzyk, and by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of New York, was supported with private funds from Latham & Watkins LLP. Speakers at the release event included American Bar Association President Judy Perry Martinez, the Task Force co-chairs, and experts on disaster-related legal issues The New York City Office of Emergency Management also hosted a Disaster Task Force event in Brooklyn, where Congressman Donald Payne Jr., Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, delivered remarks.
- Funded the fourth round of LSC’s Rural Summer Legal Corps Grants, which placed 30 law students with 29 LSC grantees in rural areas in 24 states. Since 2016, the program has placed 118 law students with 59 LSC grantees serving rural clients in 38 states. In 2019, law students provided direct services to more than 2,000 individuals.
- Awarded 2019 Midwest Legal Disaster Grants, LSC awarded disaster coordination grants totaling $985,000 to help low-income communities in the Midwest prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters to five legal aid programs in Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The funding was made possible by a private grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. Building on the successes of Iowa Legal Aid and Legal Aid of Nebraska—LSC’s partners for disaster preparedness pilot programs launched in 2015—the project will continue to enhance preparedness in Iowa and Nebraska while expanding to Arkansas, Montana, and Oklahoma.
- Awarded the fifth round of G. Duane Vieth Leadership Development Grants to five legal aid organizations to promote entrepreneurial and business acumen among LSC grantee leadership.