Why Funding Civil Legal Services Is Smart Strategy


Helping to supply individuals, families, and the community with civil legal services that they otherwise could not afford is an impactful funding strategy that dramatically and effectively improves people’s quality of life.


The Background on Civil Legal Services Support

When a person faces a criminal charge, the United States Constitution gives each of us the right to a public defender, paid for by the government. If that same person is involved in a civil legal matter, such as one threatening the loss of one’s home or employment, or one addressing domestic violence — even if the outcome of that case is as potentially life-changing as a prison sentence would be — they must either pay for their own lawyer or represent themselves.


Many cannot adequately do either.


By increasing access to civil legal services, we can help keep the otherwise manageable issues families and individuals face from turning into larger, catastrophic problems. Perhaps someone is the victim of an illegal eviction, which forces them into homelessness. Or racial discrimination at work hinders their advancement and keeps them from earning a living wage. Considering that there’s only one legal aid lawyer available for about every 8,350 low-income Californians, scenarios such as these aren’t unlikely or even infrequent.


If individuals or families fall into crisis, they might need to rely on other safety net services — services that quickly cost the government far more than civil legal support would have. Not only will individuals, families, and the community endure more suffering — and perhaps even irreversible harm — they also might do so when a different funding strategy had a good chance of circumventing the crisis in the first place.


The Fund has invested in organizations that provide civil legal services support as part of our Safety Net program since the 2008 recession, as well as through our Economic Security and Disaster Preparedness grant making. We’ve learned three general lessons from our experience:


1. Philanthropic investment in civil legal services is both cost effective and impactful.

Legal aid is the least funded human service in the United States. It is also one of the most effective ways to disrupt the drivers of poverty.


People with low-incomes facing civil challenges are far more likely to win their case when they have an attorney — five-times as likely in immigration cases. In housing cases, 90% of landlords have attorneys compared to only 10% of tenants, and as a result the majority of tenants lose their cases. Those numbers indicate a dramatic, but unsurprising, level of impact. When you take into consideration that civil legal support for someone newly homeless, or who’s on the verge of homelessness, costs from $2,000 to $5,000 that factor of impact increases further: it costs the system up to $100,000 per year to support just one unhoused person with social services, medical care, and cash benefits.


Some legal service organizations measure their social return on investment — that’s the financial value created through the services they provide. Results have shown that investment in this work generates higher returns when compared to other sectors.


2. Civil legal aid can mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 and racial injustice

The needs of people of color and people with low incomes have increased dramatically as they disproportionately bear the impacts of COVID-19. Access to civil legal services — legal advice, representation in court, and resources and other self-help tools — goes a long way in helping with challenges that have only grown more severe during the pandemic.


While civil legal services support isn’t directly designed to confront the pandemic, it is an effective line of defense against problems exacerbated by the pandemic — or by racial injustice or many other problems. The pandemic has dramatically increased the need for this support.


In short, the rate at which people of color need legal help due to unfair and illegal treatment is disproportionate. Racism shows up not just in police misconduct, but in the way creditors, landlords, employers, and more choose to treat people of color differently. Therefore, legal services organizations are well-positioned to address racial injustice effectively.


3. The time to fund civil legal services is now

Even before COVID-19, the Legal Services Corporation reported that 71% of American households experience at least one civil legal problem. And 86% of the civil legal problems reported by Americans with low incomes were tackled with insufficient, or zero legal assistance. With the pandemic, the situation has grown even more dire.


A recent study predicts at least a 40% increase in homelessness in 2020 if no major steps are taken. Timely access to civil legal services can — and should — play a critical role in providing support and in preventing problems from escalating.


For those of our philanthropic peers seeking an effective response to this pandemic or the systemic problems it has exacerbated, civil legal aid has strengthened our impact and could do the same for you. In California, State Bar-funded legal organizations reported in 2019 that they were only able to serve 30% of the more than 450,000 civil legal problems presented to them mainly due to lack of resources — this presents an opportunity for funders to make a significant difference in addressing the justice gap.


by Leah Laxamana

October 13, 2020