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LSC is the largest funder in the United States of civil justice aid for poor and low-income people. But grantees of LSC—132 organizations, with more than 850 offices—make up only about 25 percent of the 500-plus organizations providing civil justice aid in the country. The accounts that follow, based on LSC data, are intended to be instructive, not comprehensive.
In 2018, family and housing issues constituted six out of every ten problems (31 percent and 29 percent, respectively) addressed by the legal services organizations funded by LSC. Those organizations assisted some 1.8 million people. Three-fourths of the clients were women.
The most common and pressing family issues are child support, child custody, and protection from abusive relationships, most often violence and sexual assault by an adult against another adult or a child, but sometimes psychological or financial abuse of vulnerable adults as well.
The most common remedies in cases involving abusive relationships are restraining orders against abusers and filings for legal separation, divorce, or annulment. Child support involves one or both parents making payments to help meet the housing, medical, and other material needs of their children. Child custody encompasses the responsibilities of parents or guardians for the physical well-being and legal interests of children.
The government is often a party in such cases, acting in its own interest to divert money for child support toward repayment of welfare and other social benefits already provided. The government can also garnish wages, take away driver’s licenses, and use other tools to pressure and punish people struggling to fulfill their family commitments.
One benefit of increased legal aid for parents and guardians would be to offset the strong advantage the government has over poor and low-income individuals in family cases.
Lawyers: Improvements and Increases in Services
The unbundling of legal services in family matters, following a model more commonly used in housing matters, will increase the number of lawyers who can take on clients with family issues. The needs of clients must be calibrated so they receive full representation when necessary and receive unbundled services only when those will suffice. But increased representation of parents or caretakers with child custody and other issues—fathers as well as mothers and children—will increase fairness in family cases. In Washington, D.C., for example, through the Child Support Community Legal Services Project, lawyers provide legal counseling and coaching to people representing themselves, as well as same-day representation or full representation in cases requiring such services.
Civil Justice Advocates: Increases in Services
Specially trained paralegals, court navigators, legal technicians, and other kinds of civil justice advocates who are not lawyers can increase and improve access to civil justice in all kinds of family matters. These advocates can complement lawyers’ efforts, leaving lawyers free to address complex family problems that civil justice advocates lack the training or experience to handle.
Collaboration in Solving Civil Legal and Justice Problems
Families facing legal proceedings involving child support, child custody, and other matters often face health challenges, mental health issues, housing crises, a lack of employment opportunities, and related problems. Lawyers and civil justice advocates can often best help their clients in collaboration with other professionals, including social workers, nurses, doctors, and others who provide individual, family, and group support.
Medical-legal partnerships represent the most promising model of collaboration, one that legal services and related organizations should replicate in programs focusing on family problem-solving as well as housing and veterans’ issues. Sometimes called wrap-around services (because the related services “wrap around” a predominant service like healthcare), these collaborative efforts can help address the cascade of related crises that a family, health, housing, or veteran’s issue can cause, and the web of issues that people with civil justice problems usually face.
One out of seven adults living in the United States is functionally illiterate, and nearly one out of three can read and understand only common phrases. This population segment is disproportionately poor and often comprises the same people who are in greatest need of civil justice services. For them, the typically lengthy forms and procedures for legal separations, divorces, and annulments are cumbersome and written in off-putting legalese. The forms and procedures that many courts use for child-support and child-custody issues, and for probating wills and other documents, are similarly opaque. Most of these forms and procedures should be shortened and simplified. Where court systems have no forms at all, they must create plain, transparent forms with such litigants in mind.
Technology: Improvement of Information
Courts and legal aid organizations have begun creating self-help centers and kiosks that offer accurate, well-organized information about common family issues. Such centers should be placed in family and other local courts, public libraries, local schools, community centers, and other accessible venues.
The incidence of health-related problems varies by the type of poor and low-income household—from about 50 percent where people with a disability live; to about 40 percent in rural areas or in households where veterans live; to about 30 percent where seniors (that is, people 65 or older) live. By one measure, 40 percent of all poor and low-income households experience health-related problems every year, though only about 10 percent seek legal help to solve their problems. The relatively high incidence of socially determined health issues suggests that legal help could make a notable difference in addressing more health-related problems.
Health issues often create or exacerbate housing, employment, and family problems that have civil legal dimensions. The opposite is also true: legal problems—eviction, domestic violence, consumer debt, and more—often lead to health problems.
In 2018, health issues represented only 4 percent of the problems addressed in cases completed by LSC grantees, including problems related to Medicare, private insurance, and long-term healthcare facilities. Still, the opioid crisis of the past several decades has underscored the widespread effects of health issues, including addiction.
Health issues often require cooperation among first responders, health professionals, and social service providers, as well as lawyers and problem solvers who work with them. Legal services lawyers, for example, often must work with healthcare providers, drug treatment centers, and social workers to ensure that pregnant women who use opioids are able to access treatment, as laws in many states mandate.
A Broader Definition of Health
Medical-legal partnerships promote a broader definition of health, one that encompasses its social determinants: that is, the conditions that contribute positively or negatively to health outcomes.
Collaboration in Solving Civil Justice Problems
The medical-legal partnership represents a significant step toward the holistic practice of medicine, once a source of pride among family doctors. As important, this kind of partnership represents a substantial step toward a holistic approach to civil justice practice, something legal services lawyers in the 1960s aspired to provide, calling it community legal practice.
The growth and success of these partnerships remain largely below the radar of the American public, but they are exciting advances that promise similar growth and success if applied on a much wider scale, and they should be publicized and promoted enthusiastically.
Expanding Sources of Revenue through Forms of Collaboration
LSC provides, on average, about one-third of its grantees’ funding, so these organizations are resourceful about finding and attracting other funding from state, county, and local governments and from philanthropic and private sources. An increasing number of players in the healthcare system recognize that medical-legal partnerships help solve problems that are social determinants of health and, thus, that those partnerships should be funded through the healthcare delivery and payment system. Sources range from insurance companies to Medicaid to tribal funds.
Expanding the Competency of the Civil Justice System: Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition
The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition was founded in 1990 to advocate for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities. Its work has prompted improvements in access for people with disabilities at the state capitol, at the state’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and on the buses, rail cars, and light-rail cars in Denver, Boulder, and other cities. The organization’s motto—“Nothing about us, without us”—means that, when the government and private organizations make policies affecting people with disabilities, those very people should be directly involved in shaping the policies.
People with disabilities use a disproportionate share of the Medicaid budget. When their prevention needs are not met—for example, when people using inadequate wheelchairs develop pressure sores, ulcers, and sepsis—costs can skyrocket. An important way for people with disabilities to receive assistance is to have access to lawyers, like those at the coalition, who are Medicaid experts and can help their clients persuade Medicaid to spend money to prevent problems and thus realize savings later on, in the form of fewer hospital visits for preventable conditions.
The coalition’s work has led to reforms in many systems: instead of treating disabilities as bars to employment, for example, Medicaid Buy-in allows people with disabilities to work and get paid for it, while retaining Medicaid payments they need to afford medical support.
Although the coalition focuses on advocacy and system reform, it helps solve individual problems as well. In personal injury cases, lawyers commonly describe disabilities in tragic terms. But the coalition understands that most people with disabilities do not view their lives as tragic. They simply need the snow to be shoveled from a public walkway or assistance finding a sign-language interpreter for a court proceeding. For them, a just world is an accessible world.
Rental housing problems affect about one-third of poor and low-income households, and civil problems related to home ownership affect about one in seven poor and low-income homeowners.
Missed mortgage payments and foreclosures are the most common home-ownership problems. Eviction is the overwhelming rental-housing problem. Other important issues include landlords who fail to provide basic services or repairs; disputes with landlords or government agencies about rules or terms of a lease; sexual or other harassment; and unsanitary, unsafe, even uninhabitable housing.
Many tenants who lack representation do not understand how to use the legal system to enforce their rights (or sometimes are not aware of their rights or the consequences of default). Actions that seem reasonable to a tenant, like withholding rent because of a landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs, can put the tenant in jeopardy of eviction.
In many jurisdictions, 90 percent of tenants lack legal representation, 90 percent of landlords have legal counsel, and the disparity heavily affects the outcome of eviction proceedings. In New York State, for example, the Office of Civil Justice found that tenants without representation were evicted almost half the time. Since the passage of a right to counsel in New York City, filings for eviction and evictions have dropped substantially, and tenants with a lawyer have held on to their homes 84 percent of the time.79
Lawyers: Improvements and Increases in Services
Since 2010, the availability of unbundled, or limited, legal services in housing matters has increased the number of lawyers who can take on low-income clients with those issues. If an eviction process is unbundled, so that a client is represented by a different lawyer at each step, the client’s chance of keeping an apartment notably increases compared to similar situations in which clients have no legal representation. Good training coupled with professional skill and dedication allows a series of lawyers to achieve the same positive outcome for a client that a single lawyer could achieve with the time and flexibility to handle the case from start to finish.
Civil Justice Advocates: Increases in Services
Specially trained paralegals, tenant advocates, court navigators, housing navigators, limited legal technicians, and other kinds of civil justice advocates who are not lawyers can increase and improve access to civil justice in all kinds of housing matters. They can complement lawyers’ efforts, leaving lawyers free to address complex family problems that civil justice advocates lack the training or experience to handle.
- 79“All about the Right to Counsel for Evictions in NYC,” National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, last updated May 14, 2020.
Simplifying Forms, Procedures, and Civil Justice: Massachusetts Housing Court
The Massachusetts Housing Court is a department of the state’s trial courts. It hears cases involving the health, safety, or welfare of occupants or owners of residential housing: evictions, small claims, and civil actions involving personal injury, property damage, breach of contract, discrimination, and other claims.80 The court also enforces housing codes and hears appeals of local zoning board decisions affecting residential housing.
The first housing court in Massachusetts was started in 1971 in Boston; it continues to hear more than 150 new eviction cases each week. The Boston court grew into a housing court system covering about 70 percent of the state. Still, many cities and towns in the state, including Chelsea, Somerville, and Medford north of Boston, had no access to a housing court. So, in 2017, Massachusetts expanded the housing court’s jurisdiction to cover the other 30 percent of the state. The court is led by a chief justice and deputy court administrator. As of May 2020, it had 14 judges, including its chief justice, covering the state’s 14 counties, arranged into six geographic districts, plus two “recall justices” who had reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 but had been recalled to service by the chief justice of the state court system.
The statewide housing court resulted from a 2016 study and action plan called the Massachusetts Justice for All project, which focused on four areas of concern: housing; consumer debt; family law; and the state “ecosystem” or infrastructure of resources available to poor and low-income people who could not afford a lawyer.
A working group, after finding themes common to each of these areas, advanced ideas to simplify the state’s system of justice, including the creation of “multi-door courthouse approaches” to legal disputes. In housing cases, for instance, either party can move a matter started in another state court to the housing court by filing a simple form.
In 2017, fewer than 7 percent of tenants in the Massachusetts Housing Court facing eviction had representation. Many were poor and low-income people of color who often had additional barriers like limited proficiency in English or mental health problems. By contrast, 67 percent of landlords had legal counsel. A report about the Massachusetts Justice for All project found, “Where housing cases pit an unrepresented tenant against a represented landlord, the result is a persistent power imbalance that prevents equal access to justice.”81
Ultimately, the report recommended changes to most aspects of housing procedure, from the precourt to postcourt stages. For example, the eviction process at the time the report was written began with a landlord serving a tenant with a “Notice to Quit.” The report recommended that it be renamed “Notice of Intent to Begin Court Case to Evict.” The change was meant to eliminate misleading language suggesting that tenants had to leave their home when they received the notice, and to communicate that the notice began a legal dispute in which the tenant could engage and, potentially, win.
- 80“Massachusetts Court System.”
- 81Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, Massachusetts Justice for All Strategic Action Plan (2018), 34.
Veterans make up a relatively small and shrinking segment of the American population. There were about 20 million veterans in 2018, comprising about 8 percent of the adult population. By 2037 that number will fall to 13.6 million, or about 7 percent of the population. Even though their numbers are small, far too many veterans are vulnerable.
Almost two out of five veterans have a disability, compared to one out of five nonveterans. Veterans’ disabilities include post-traumatic stress disorder, heavy scarring from burns or wounds, hearing loss, badly injured knees, and debilitating neck or back problems.
Many veterans with low income face the same severe challenges as nonveterans: family issues (especially those related to child custody); housing problems (particularly eviction, foreclosure, and homelessness); employment matters; driver’s license restoration; and health challenges of all kinds, including mental illness.
But veterans also face serious problems that nonveterans do not, such as struggles to obtain health benefits and other veterans services they are due from the government, or to upgrade the status of their military discharges—problems often exacerbated by challenges like mental illness and homelessness.
Civil Justice Advocates: Increases in Services
VA has long allowed, and helped train, civil justice advocates to work with veterans who are trying to receive or regain benefits. VA and other organizations should expand the accreditation of legal services providers who help veterans obtain VA benefits, including representatives of veterans’ service organizations and claims agents who are not lawyers.
Many other civil justice advocates can help as well. Public librarians can help veterans and their family members access information about the range of legal issues veterans contend with. Public colleges and universities, working with groups like Student Veterans of America, can develop sources of information, including information kiosks in college and university libraries and student centers, to provide guidance to veterans about the issues they contend with. And referral networks that serve veterans can do an even better job of providing support. In some Starbucks locations, veterans and lawyers hold “Military Mondays” to provide other veterans with legal information and other services.
Collaboration in Solving Civil Justice Problems
As of 2019, 30 or so medical-legal partnerships had been established at VA hospitals and other facilities. VA could further speed the expansion of these cost-effective partnerships by identifying new candidates. The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership developed a VA Medical-Legal Partnership Readiness Guide as a basis for expanding the number of partnerships in the VA system.82
In 2019, 140 legal clinics were colocated at VA facilities. Although some were part of medical-legal partnerships, most were not. As they increase the number of medical-legal partnerships, VA and legal services organizations should increase the number of legal clinics at VA’s 1,243 healthcare facilities, which include 170 VA medical centers and 1,063 outpatient clinics.
As part of this effort, VA should also expand its program for Supportive Services for Veteran Families—the only VA program allowed to fund legal services—by funding more legal services organizations through formal agreements and through other arrangements.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims was founded in 1988. Four years later, after the court realized that 80 percent of the veterans litigants had no legal representation, the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium was founded. The consortium won the opportunity to provide pro bono representation, and its approach might prove viable in other areas, such as efforts to obtain upgrades of discharges from a military service branch.83 In addition, the consortium has developed successful methods for training pro bono lawyers to handle cases, to refer cases to the organization, and to provide ongoing mentorship.
Expanding the number of law school clinics serving veterans, including veterans whose income disqualifies them from LSC-funded aid, would also improve veterans’ access to collaborative forms of assistance. For example, Yale Law School and other law schools with strong veterans’ clinics are strengthening their commitments to medical-legal partnerships. And the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School created a website that includes an online calculator to help veterans in Massachusetts determine whether they are eligible for benefits they are not receiving.84
Technology: Expanded Use
VA, veterans’ service organizations, state governments, and other supporters of veterans should make much wider use of digital communications and social media to describe the legal needs of veterans, successful efforts to address them, and the legal rights that legal services organizations and other providers of civil justice can help veterans fulfill. Organizations like the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, which serve traumatized clients, provide models of legal representation for remote communities. Their rules and accreditation policies for lawyers who want to serve veterans’ communities are similar to those of VA.
A model of successful online communication is StatesideLegal.org, officially launched in 2010 as the first national website focused on helping veterans and military families; it is owned and operated by Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine.
Some VA medical-legal partnerships use VA’s “telehealth” system to connect legal services providers by phone or videoconference with veterans in rural areas, who receive online healthcare consultations at community-based outpatient centers. This approach is valuable in all rural areas but especially in parts of states where limited broadband service means veterans are unable to access online civil justice resources from home.
VA’s Homeless Programs Office has a veterans’ Justice Outreach program working on criminal justice issues, which can also help incarcerated veterans qualify for VA healthcare and disability benefits, facilitating community reintegration upon release.
Veterans’ Treatment Courts, using volunteer veteran mentors, have been successful in keeping veterans with addiction problems from relapsing. As of June 2018, 314 specialists were working in 551 treatment courts and other court programs focused on veterans. VA should also contribute to the development of civil analogues to treatment courts.
Community organizations should partner with officers of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the branch of the military concerned with military justice and military law, to provide guidance to members of the military—before they separate from military service—about common civil justice needs they might have as veterans.
Standing Up for Veterans for the Past 40 Years: National Veterans Legal Services
The National Veterans Legal Services program, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 and based in Washington, D.C., views its mission as helping the United States live up to its promises to veterans. It is the preeminent legal-aid program serving military members and veterans.
Some of veterans’ unmet legal needs—such as those involving family and housing—are similar to the needs of many poor and low-income nonveteran Americans. Some are unique to veterans, such as those involving veterans’ benefits and the nature of their discharge from military service.
The organization has helped obtain $5.2 billion in benefits for its clients. It helps secure lifetime disability benefits for veterans of wartime service in Afghanistan and Iraq who were discharged because of post-traumatic stress disorder without a disability rating that would have qualified them for benefits. It helps veterans of the Vietnam War or their survivors receive disability or death benefits for injuries related to their service, including exposure to Agent Orange. And it provides free legal advice, counsel, and representation to veterans, service members, and their families, making claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs or appeals to the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The program has a success rate of better than 90 percent in the court.
Federal laws governing veterans’ benefits and military discharges are often so complicated that only an expert can guide veterans through the thicket of challenges. For example, veterans and active military are covered by different disability benefits systems. Coverage varies along many dimensions, including types of benefits, types of claims, and criteria for eligibility. Dealing with the systems is particularly confusing when benefits overlap.
Only federal laws govern challenges to the systems, so only national efforts—federal legislation, executive-branch regulation, national class-action lawsuits—can address the legal issues that affect veterans. National organizations with specialized knowledge about veterans’ affairs, such as the National Veterans Legal Services program, are the most effective advocates for solving problems that affect only veterans.
From the time states established homes for veterans after the Civil War, the ethos of veterans’ support was that it would not be adversarial. That ethos governed the Veterans Bureau at its founding in 1921, consolidating in one agency all federal programs supporting veterans.
A benefit of the nonadversarial approach is that civil justice advocates other than lawyers, like members of the American Legion, have been allowed to advocate for veterans, often very effectively. But lawyers have long found it difficult to represent veterans in a nonadversarial system, and federal law prohibited lawyers from charging to represent veterans seeking to get VA benefits or appeal a VA denial of benefits.
In 2006, Congress repealed that law, in recognition of the need for much wider representation of veterans, including by lawyers. With 25 years of experience in the field, the National Veterans Legal Services provided a model for the future of veterans law.