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. That’s what the Walter & Elise Haas Fund has grown to recognize over years of collaboration with our grantee partners.

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 grantmaking. 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.

  • Open Door Legal provides access to legal services to San Francisco residents with low-incomes, offering full representation in more than 35 areas of civil law. For every dollar Open Door Legal spends, $6.63 in financial benefit is created for the people it serves, and $14.75 in loss from potential illegal activity is prevented.
  • Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) works statewide to strengthen civil organizations through advocacy for increased funding for legal services. It provides trainings for attorneys and fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing. The Fund’s support for LAAC goes on to benefit a number of grantee partners, extending the impact of this grantmaking.

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.

For example, some of our grantee partners protect individuals and families from income loss and the increased threat of evictions. The pandemic has dramatically increased the need for this support.

  • Legal Aid at Work advances low-income workers’ rights to wages, workplace protections, and other benefits by providing individualized counsel and conducting public policy efforts.
  • Eviction Defense Collaborative provides rental assistance, emergency eviction defense services, tenant rights education, and advocacy for clients living in shelters.
  • East Bay Community Law Center combines specialized, emergency direct services with state and local advocacy to help vulnerable residents while also training future attorneys to become advocates for racial and economic justice.

The Fund also sponsors a Post-Graduate Law Fellow through the Legal Services Funders Network (LSFN). Due to the pandemic, the regular California Bar Exam scheduled for July was cancelled — and that means recent law school graduates won’t have the opportunity to pass the Bar and practice law until later. Through LSFN’s fellowship program, 30 recent graduates of Bay Area law schools have received their Practical Training of Law Students Certification (PTLS) and are increasing the capacity of Bay Area legal services organizations during the pandemic.

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.

Beyond the grantees previously mentioned, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund also supports:

  • Legal Link, which expands the amount of legal navigation support available. It trains non-lawyers to identify legal issues and connect people with help. This entails forging partnerships with Bay Area social service providers, some of which are also supported by the Fund.
  • Legal Access Alameda, which launched a hotline and created a training program for law students and lawyers to support those facing legal challenges following disasters.

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.

For more information, contact Legal Services Funders Network as a logical next step in understanding the needs and opportunities in the civil legal services field.

Blog, Economic Security, Grantmaking

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