Investing in Justice: Where Do We Go From Here?

July 28, 2015

Kristen Holway, Senior Manager, Learning Practice

“Most Americans don’t realize that you can have your home taken away, your children taken away and you can be a victim of domestic violence but you have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect you.”

— Jim Sandman, President, Legal Services Corporation

Over 60 million Americans, approximately one in five, qualify for free civil legal aid according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Unfortunately, more than half of those who actually seek legal assistance will not receive services due to a growing reduction in the availability of resources.

Shockingly, these figures only represent individuals living within 125 percent of the federal poverty line. According to Amy Sings in the Timber, executive director of the Montana Justice Foundation, “millions of moderate income Americans also cannot afford the legal help they need when facing life-changing situations such as domestic violence, unlawful evictions, or the loss of veterans’, health or disability benefits. They are left to navigate these complex legal situations on their own — and risk losing their families, homes and livelihoods in the process.”

Knowing that nearly half of all low-income Montanans experience at least one civil legal problem each year that goes unaddressed, the Montana Access to Justice Commission, with support from Philanthropy Northwest member Montana Justice Foundation, conducted a study to better understand the gaps and barriers to civil legal aid access. Their findings have implications for funders across all states and all sectors — and have us asking ourselves whether there is a need for broader conversation.

Key Findings

1. Demand for free & reduced cost legal assistance outstrips supply

In Montana, it’s estimated that nearly 200,000 people (20 percent of the state’s population) are eligible for civil legal aid because they live at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. An additional 135,000 people have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, which precludes many from having the ability to pay for legal help.

While “no segment of the low or moderate income population is spared," some populations are disproportionately impacted: victims of domestic violence, persons with mental illness or mental disability, immigrants and refugees, people over the age of 65, veterans, Native youth in foster care, low-wage and seasonal workers, LGBTQ adults, and people living in rural or geographically isolated areas.

Highly skilled attorneys and advocates are available to support the needs of these communities, but demand for services far outstrips supply. For example, there are only 13 attorneys on staff at the state’s largest provider of civil legal aid – the Montana Legal Services Association. That’s approximately one attorney for every 15,000 eligible for their services.

2. One size does not fit all

Different types of legal problems require various types of legal service. One person may need short-term advice, pro se support, or mediation services whereas another person — like victims of domestic violence and older adults with dementia and other disabilities related to aging — may require “full representation” by an attorney. While many assume gaps in service availability are most prevalent in family law, they actually cut across all types of legal issues — from consumer protection to employment law.

3. Geographic isolation

Montana is the fourth largest state in the country. Towns and cities are far apart and access to legal services is compounded by limited public transportation infrastructure in some areas. Providing legal services via the telephone or Internet is not necessarily a viable option for individuals who are geographically isolated since many who need the services cannot afford a computer, have limited access to internet, are less likely to learn a new technology due to age, or require in person assistance.

4. Cultural and experiential barriers

Some eligible individuals may not know about the availability of free legal support, but even those that do may avoid accessing resources because “they may be intimidated by or have had a bad experience with a lawyer."  Others may be too embarrassed to ask for help. “Some Montanans — older people in particular — believe they should ‘pick themselves up by their bootstraps’ instead of seeking help. Even when they are told they have paid taxes for these services, it is very hard for them to ask for or accept help.” Other people may resent that these services are for “poor people” and not want to view themselves this way.

Where do we go from here?

One of the struggles in meeting the needs of low-income individuals is the lack of awareness that “many legal aid priorities and work already align with foundation goals,” according to Amy Sings in the Timber. “Much like low income individuals often do not recognize the problems they are experiencing as legal problems, funders often do not recognize legal solutions as the incredibly effective tool that they are. It’s just not intuitive,” said Sings in the Timber.

Philanthropy Northwest is partnering with the Montana Justice Foundation to host a conversation about the ways in which support for civil legal aid can complement your existing funding portfolio – regardless of your geographic funding priorities. We will discuss:

  • the economic impacts of civil legal aid
  • who is accessing services and how they are doing it
  • specific strategies for funders who focus on housing, domestic violence services, veterans and military families, disaster recovery, and the rights of vulnerable populations

Investing in Economic, Family and Health Justice

  • Tuesday, September 1, 2015
  • 10am - 11:30am PDT
  • Location: Philanthropy Northwest, Seattle or Webinar (webinar info provided upon registration)
  • Registration and More Information