The Public Welfare foundation is funding legal aid elder statesmen Alan Houseman, now retired from the Center for Law and Social Policy, to explore the research and evidence about how civil legal aid reduces and eliminates poverty. In a way this goes back to the original vision of legal services under OEO in the War on Poverty.
The project announcement says that the project will review the following:
- Research on the delivery of legal services including that catalogued on the NLADA maintained website legalaidresearch.org.
- Studies of Social Return on Investment (SROI) for civil legal aid.
- Research on cost savings to states from civil legal aid.
- State outcome reports in the five states which do them.
- Studies on key civil legal aid cases and their impact.
- To the degree relevant, Social Science and evaluation research on anti-poverty policies and programs.
It aims to “distill from this research what can be learned about how civil legal aid helps low-income people”
- Obtain greater income and financial security including wages from work, government benefits, tax credits and consumer protections
- Obtain safe and habitable housing and prevent homelessness;
- Improve access to mental and physical health care;
- Prevent or help people escape domestic violence;
- Obtain critical services that help stabilize individuals and families and prevent child abuse and neglect;
- Obtain early education and child care, k-12 education and post-secondary education;
- Improve the communities in which they live; and.
- Other indicators from anti-poverty impacts.
The description adds: “Finally, if feasible, the project would suggest what additional research would be helpful to understanding the anti-poverty impact of civil legal aid.”
This does indeed provide a great opportunity to bring together and synthesize the emerging work in this area.
- I hope the work will, as the communications research urges, use a broad definition of “civil legal aid” to include not just traditionally government funded community based legal aid provision of counsel, but also such organizations work in pro bono, unbundling, self-help etc, as well as court-based legal aid services such as selfhelp, caseflaw management, and judicial education.
- I also hope that Alan will find a way to think about longer term and broader impacts of such interventions — i.e. what is easy to measure is the first order effect such as benefits won, homelessness prevented, etc., but what is much harder to assess and calculate is the extent to which these short term benefits actually impact even on the beneficiaries’ long term poverty status, let alone aggregate poverty. (For example, does intervention in family support merely move poverty around, or do we see an aggregate decrease — I expect so, but the case needs to be made.)
- Measuring the impact of systemic advocacy — changes in policy, beyond cases won — is hard but important. The Massachusetts study, for example, attempted to do so.
- An ideal output would be a design for a software driven system that could pull the underlying data out of national databases, and produce the impact statement, or at least part of it. A project for TIG?
- One byproduct will be seeing which states are moving forward with this kind of research — they should be scored up in the Access to Justice Index Innovation Sub-Index, if and when it is created.
Creating not just inventories of research, but of methodologies would be very useful. Examples of methodologies that might be gathered include ways that case numbers and short term outcomes can be multiplied into economic impacts (see the Mass study again.)
These are perhaps unfairly ambitious ideas, but at a minimum this project will stimulate this discussion in our community and hopefully law the groundwork for research, funded by organizations such as NSF, that can help find answers to these questions. Onward!