The Need for Civil Legal Aid
Reprinted with permission by Pooja O’Hanlon, Executive Director, Elmezzi Foundation
David Meehan, Administrative Assistant
At a recent conference our interest was piqued on the issue of Civil Legal Aid. While we have a few grantees who have been working on this issue individually, this was the first time that the lack of free and readily available civil legal aid was presented as a widespread problem; one that impacts low-income communities, at times pushing individuals and families further into poverty.
So what is civil legal aid and what makes it so important? As defined by the United State Department of Justice, civil legal aid is free legal aid to low and middle income individuals that need assistance with legal matters that are not criminal.1 Civil legal matters often involve assisting people in getting access to basic social systems and amenities such as healthcare, housing, employment, government benefits (i.e., SNAP, SSI, disability, etc.), and education. Civil legal aid can be provided through a myriad of avenues, including, but not limited to pro bono volunteers, law firms, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and legal information websites.
Civil legal aid can help millions of low and middle income Americans in living productive and financially self-sufficient lives. For example, if a family is facing housing insecurity, or an individual is dealing with domestic violence, some of them may not seek out civil legal aid as they might see their obstacles as personal and/or ones that don’t have a legal recourse (simply unaware of legal options or the full legal process). Courts are largely unequipped to help individuals navigate the court system. While new programs such as the Court Navigator Program in NYS2 are working on supporting and assisting unrepresented litigants there is a lot more to be done. According to the US Department of Justice, over 50 percent of those seeking civil legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources, meaning a majority of civil cases has one or both party without legal representation. This is because, unlike in criminal cases, civil cases do not guarantee legal representation as a right. While it can be difficult to identify exactly where civil legal aid services are necessary, there is a strong correlation between where services are needed and communities living in poverty with high rates of housing insecurity among other things, pinpointed by census data.
In terms of our work, we support a few organizations that provide various forms of civil legal assistance to individuals and families in the Long Island City and Astoria, which are now rapidly gentrifying areas.3 In recent years we have supported the Central Astoria Local Development Coalition’s (CALDC) Senior One-Stop Benefits Assistance Program, which assists senior citizens in identifying which social service benefits they are eligible for and apply for said benefits. In addition, CALDC, through its partnership with Queens Legal, also focuses on helping seniors in Astoria and LIC that are facing housing insecurity identify the benefits they are eligible for and the rights guaranteed to them by tenant law, reducing forced evictions and ensuring fair housing practices in the community.
Another grantee of ours, the Jeanne Elmezzi Adult Learning Center (ALC) at Queens Library also provides assistance on this issue by making available free legal resources, case management for government benefits, employment, health care, immigration, and education for visitors to the Center.
To help individuals and families remain financially sustainable and lead healthy, productive lives is part our mission. We commend the work of our grantees and look forward to our continued learning in this area.
1) Civil Legal Aid 101 | ATJ | Department of Justice https://www.justice.gov/atj/civil-legal-aid-101, accessed April, 2016.
2) NYC Housing Court - Resolution Assistance Program (RAP) https://www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/housing/rap.shtml, Accessed May, 2016.
3) Austensen, Maxwell, Ingrid Gould Ellen, Luke Herrine, et al. "State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2015." http://furmancenter.org/files/pr/NYUFurmanCenter_SOCin2015_6MAY2016.pdf, accessed May, 2016.