With 92% of low income individuals’ civil legal issues in the U.S. either inadequately or not at all addressed, and legal services organizations turning away about 50% of qualified clients due to a lack of capacity, pro bono services from the private bar are more essential than ever. However, scaling pro bono programs requires significant human and capital. To support this work, the Legal Services Corporation issues millions of dollars in special grants to its grantees each year for pro bono specific initiatives through its Pro Bono Innovation Fund.
I analyzed this year’s 15 winning initiatives to understand where the greatest need is at the moment and any big legal aid trends. Below are 5 key learnings from this year’s batch, which range from administrative overhauls to specific program expansions:
- Criminal records expungement is a top priority. Over 25% of the grants focus on criminal record expungement assistance, including those made to The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, California Rural Legal Assistance, Legal Aid Chicago, and the Michigan Advocacy Program. The investments highlight not just the high volume of low-income folks affected by criminal records, but also the consequences of how a criminal record might affect someone’s ability to land a job, secure housing, vote, obtain public benefits, and more. Some programs focus on specific groups, like the LAFLA’s Veterans of Color Advocacy Project (VOCAP), which will “help veterans overcome the barriers associated with having a criminal record to gain self-sufficiency and stability … and free up staff resources to assist veterans with their additional legal needs, including veterans’ benefits claims and discharge upgrades.” Other programs, like MAP’s initiative to build a “Legal Navigator online program that engages non-attorney administrative volunteers to efficiently address the burdensome administrative tasks required for clients to apply for criminal records expungements,” are broader and focus on tech access for those in need.
- Housing remains a significant area of need. During the pandemic, housing-related legal aid requests skyrocketed, many due to unlawful evictions. Which is why it’s no surprise that another 25% of LSC grants in this batch went to grantees working on housing issues. With the funds, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Corporation, which runs the Pro Bono Security Deposit Theft Project, will expand its capacity to serve clients affected by the pandemic and Hurricane Ida. The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, through its Lawyers Advocating for Safe Housing (LASH) project, will be able to assist more clients with eviction defense and issues related to housing conditions, rent deposits, lockouts, and utility shutoffs. Lastly, Northeast Legal Aid and Community Legal Aid Services, Inc. will increase capacity to assist more unrepresented clients in housing matters more broadly.
- Legal services are expanding to schools. Since people often don’t realize their problems are legal ones (rather, they just have problems!), it can be hard to know where to go for resolution. Schools, religious institutions, and libraries are great local resources for individuals seeking help, and LSC is interested in ways to collaborate. For example, with fresh funding, Nevada Legal Services is developing a program at Myrtle Tate Elementary School in Las Vegas that will create an “access point to NLS’ services for low-income clients in a community who would otherwise go unserved.” Land of Lincoln in Illinois is also forming a Justice in Schools Project (JSP) with East St. Louis School District 189 so volunteer attorneys can provide civil legal services to students’ families as a starting point.
- Small claims court is an area to watch. Alongside the rise of justice tech companies like People Clerk and Courtroom5, which are helping pro se litigants navigate small claims court, LSC will be providing additional grant money to help consumers defend themselves. Its newest initiative, through a new grant to Legal Action of Wisconsin, will establish a Lawyer-For-A-Day (LFAD) program that engages pro bono volunteers in defending cases filed against consumers by third-party debt collectors or debt buyers. The project’s goal is “to enforce consumers’ rights by reducing uncontested and “rubber-stamped” judgments against debtors.”
- There’s still a lot of organizational work to be done. The last trend of note is that another quarter of grants, including those to Alaska Legal Services Corporation, Inland Counties Legal Services, Georgia Legal Services Program, and Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, are dedicated to evaluating and modernizing technology, as well as consolidating and standardizing pro bono programs, to maximize efficiency. As legal needs evolve, having organizational stability is essential to grantees’ ability to address them.
Congratulations to the grantees — we can’t wait to see what you build!
[All quotes taken from LSC’s Press Release.]
What We Can Learn From This Year’s LSC Pro Bono Innovation Fund Grants was originally published in Paladin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.