How Civil Legal Aid Enhances Effective Grantmaking

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Imagine that you and your children are victims of domestic abuse. Or that your landlord refuses to remove mold from your apartment and you are getting sick.

You have been wronged and you want a chance to turn things around. You need a lawyer, but you are poor. You think someone will say, as you’ve seen on countless television shows, “If you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you.”

Well, think again. That guarantee of legal help only applies to people charged with serious crimes, not to people fighting civil injustices – unlawful evictions, denial of benefits or access to health services – core matters of personal safety, economic security and family support that can threaten basic survival.

In fact, more than 61 million poor and nearly poor Americans are eligible for civil legal aid to help them get their day in civil court. Yet state and national studies estimate that 80 percent of their serious legal needs go unmet due to grossly insufficient funding and support.

After years of working on the issue of access to justice for low-income people, first at the Ford Foundation and now as president of the Public Welfare Foundation, I am convinced that private philanthropy should pay greater attention to this serious concern – and contribute more resources to help narrow the gap between supply and demand.

A recent publication from the Public Welfare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, called Natural Allies: Philanthropy and Civil Legal Aid, shows why investing in civil legal aid can be an effective and powerful strategy.

By taking this on as a priority, grantmakers can not only help advance equal access to justice, but also help make progress on other issues. Civil legal aid can serve as a significant tool in a funder’s toolbox, similar to community organizing, advocacy, or research. It adds value as an integral component to a funder’s programs, such as affordable housing, access to health care, education reform, economic development, income security, domestic violence, or children and families.

Funders committed to improving conditions for low-income people and communities through service provision see civil legal aid as one of the most effective tools. And those concerned about creating broader impact or ensuring that policies are implemented and sustained view civil legal aid lawyers as terrific partners.

Funders who want to sustain programs and leverage dollars, know that civil legal aid is a powerful vehicle. And they have seen how private funding of innovative legal aid projects often complements state and federal funding through public-private partnerships.

Ultimately, supporting civil legal aid can help empower low-income people and communities to have a shot at the justice they deserve and it can improve the effectiveness and impact of a funder’s support.

Learn more about legal aid and areas of need by visiting authoritative websites:

American Bar Association, www.ambar.org/sclaidinitiatives
Legal Services Corporation, www.lsc.gov
National Legal Aid and Defender Association, www.nlada.org/civil
National Center for State Courts, www.ncsc.org/atj

Mary E. McClymont is president of the Public Welfare Foundation.

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