Unfairly Treated Americans Find Hope Through Civil Legal Aid and Pro Bono Legal Services

older man hanging his head sitting on the street

The Legal Services Corporation, the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, reported in June 2017 that 86 percent of low-income Americans received inadequate or no professional legal help for the civil legal problems they face simply because they couldn’t afford it.

Here in Pennsylvania, a study undertaken by the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board and the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network found that for every person represented by a PLAN program, at least two asked for and were eligible for help, but received only limited or no legal assistance because of a lack of resources.

In some types of cases, not having legal counsel can make a dramatic difference in the outcome. Take the example of low-income tenants facing eviction. Across the county, roughly 90 percent of landlords are represented by counsel, while 90 percent of tenants are not. Simply having a lawyer increases the odds of being able to stay in one’s home. Tenants in New York City who represented themselves were 50 percent more likely to be evicted.; with assistance from a lawyer, they won 90 percent of the time.

Why does having a lawyer have such an impact? The reality is that even the most mundane legal matters can require dozens of steps and complex maneuvering.

Millions of American cannot afford the legal help they need when facing life-changing situations, such as domestic violence, unlawful evictions, or the loss of veterans', health or disability benefits. The justice gap represents the difference between the level of civil legal aid available and the level that is necessary to meet the legal needs of low-income individuals and families.

Should there be space within the American legal system where people have no hope of fairness? No. Yet, those who fight for equal justice for all by providing pro bono services face a growing challenge to keep up with need.

Too Many Cases, Too Few Attorneys

According to a recent survey conducted by the American Bar Association, 81 percent of attorneys feel pro bono work is important, and slightly over half do or have done pro bono work. Last year, more than 280 attorneys from the region volunteered to assist NLS’ 29 staff attorneys in serving 14,750 residents of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence Counties who did not have the ability to pay for legal help. (These pro bono lawyers include solo practitioners, retirees and volunteers from the 45 area law firms and corporate legal departments that comprise the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership.)

Nevertheless, the number of such attorneys still needed is staggering.

The 2017 Justice Gap Report says a whopping 71% of low-income households nationwide experienced at least one civil legal problem. In Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties combined, 210,000 households are low income … so how many of our neighbors will go without legal help in the coming year?

How Neighborhood Legal Services Can Help

NLS is the major provider of free civil legal aid to low-income, elderly and abused individuals in these counties. Every NLS case has reached a crisis stage that threatens someone’s safety and security – which means it can take days, weeks, even months to resolve.

Fortunately, NLS attracts highly qualified staff attorneys and pro bono volunteers who are also committed and willing to helping the vulnerable. But, we need more.

Besides representing individuals in their legal challenges, NLS attorneys offer community education seminars throughout the region. From talks on family, elder and benefits laws to special projects for veterans, women and children, NLS shares as many resources as possible to as wide of an audience as we can.

NLS attorneys and pro bono volunteers have provided civil legal aid and community legal education to over 1.1 million people since 1966. Today, over 17,000 men, women and children face such dire legal problems as abuse, wrongful eviction, mortgage foreclosure, withheld wages, child custody disputes and denial of essential benefits each year … and turn to NLS for help.

Research shows that civil legal aid for one person improves the lives of entire families – which, in turn, benefits our community and each one of us.

Max Laun, Esq., is a past president of our Board of Directors and is vice president/general counsel for Arconic. He speaks to the need … and why he believes we all should help.

“As lawyers, we are a privileged group. By virtue of our education, training and hard work, we have succeeded. But there is an entire group of people out there who need our help: the poor, the underprivileged, and those who don’t understand and have no ability to navigate our legal system. Be a solution: Give of your time or of your resources to ensure that we don’t allow people to fall through the cracks.”

Can we continue to accept the status quo -- where many go to court alone, unsure of their rights, and can lose everything—or will you join in us in the fight to ensure justice for all?

Pro Bono Public Service: A Lawyer's Professional Obligation

Recognizing the importance of pro bono service and the unique professional responsibility of lawyers to render public interest legal service, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has approved the creation of a new continuing legal education (CLE) pilot program aimed at increasing support for civil legal aid for low-income Pennsylvanians. The pilot program will allow licensed Pennsylvania lawyers to earn CLE credit for approved pro bono service in the community through certified legal service providers such as NLS. The state Supreme Court also created an emeritus status for retired attorneys to do pro bono work in order to create an expanded pool of qualified volunteer attorneys to provide legal aid to those in need.

If you’d like to help NLS work towards bridging the justice gap by supporting these selfless individuals in their work, please subscribe to our newsletter and donate today. If you’d like to discuss joining our team of volunteers, please call us toll-free at (866) 761-6572 x6140 or email us.

Thousands of people need your help.

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