The Challenge: Rapidly
Increasing Civil Legal Needs of
Unlike in criminal cases, the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to legal representation for people facing civil legal issues. Many people must face the judge without a lawyer, and a civil legal problem often spirals into a series of complex and interconnected challenges to the health, safety, and financial security of low-income individuals, families and communities. Washingtonians may be facing a looming foreclosure or eviction, the trauma of domestic violence and child custody issues, or the challenge of reinstating a driver’s license to get and keep a job.
The number of people living in poverty who cannot access legal aid is exploding, as Jay Doran of the Legal Foundation of Washington emphasized in the first part of this series in the June Bar Bulletin,1 highlighting the results of the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study (CLNS). A staggering 18 percent of Washington’s population lives in poverty. However, the one bright spot in the study confirms that the civil legal aid system does work effectively for those who do get support: More than 60 percent of those who receive legal help secure some resolution to their problems. So, how do we meet the demand of people needing legal help?
Unfortunately, there are simply not enough resources and capacity to meet our state’s increasing demands. Only about 24 percent of those living in poverty receive the legal assistance they need to address their potentially life-altering civil legal issues. The gap between those who need services and those who get them is largely due to inadequate financial support for legal aid organizations and related programs and services.
“We are only reaching a fraction of the Washingtonians who need our help, and the needs are growing exponentially,” wrote John McKay, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, in the February issue of NW Lawyer. “The doors to the courthouse are closed to the poor and the powerless.”
Addressing the Need:
Our State’s Civil Legal
Aid Network in a Nutshell
There are more than 20 organizations that provide civil legal aid to low-income individuals and families throughout the state. The size of these organizations, the services they provide and the people they serve vary. The Northwest Justice Project (NJP), our state’s largest provider of civil legal aid, employs more than 100 attorneys at 17 offices across the state, and operates our state’s centralized legal aid hotline (CLEAR) and legal aid website, WashingtonLawHelp.org. NJP relies on restricted federal and state dollars directing the type of work and clients it can serve (e.g., no class actions, cannot represent undocumented or incarcerated people).
Partly as a result of these restrictions, several “specialty” legal aid providers work with targeted low-income populations to meet their needs. A few examples:
• TeamChild is a statewide organization working with youth to provide the legal support necessary to keep them on track, housed, safe and in school.
• Seattle Community Law Center works exclusively with people with disabilities who are homeless or low-
income to assist them in accessing federal benefits.
• Columbia Legal Services is a statewide provider focused on systemic advocacy, using policy reform, litigation and innovative partnerships to end practices and procedures that keep people in poverty.
Additionally, there are 17 volunteer lawyer programs (VLPs) covering nearly every corner of our state — from Spokane to Vancouver to Whatcom County — that work with private attorneys who donate their time and expertise to help low-income individuals and families with their civil legal needs. VLPs vary in size and function, but generally speaking, these organizations are part of a community’s local bar association (e.g., King County Bar Association Pro Bono Services), have staff that recruit volunteer attorneys to assist clients at scheduled legal clinics, and have staff attorneys or volunteer attorneys who provide volunteers with oversight and mentorship.
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