Suggestions for an Expansive and Popular Definition of “Civil Legal Aid”

Given that on Tuesday April the 8th there is an invitational event at the White House described as “White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice,” it seems a good time for reflections on how best and most effectively to talk about our work.

Indeed, as readers of this blog are well familiar, we now know, thanks to the work of Voices for Civil Justice, that the phrase “civil legal aid” is highly effective as communicating our core goals and identify.  As readers are also aware, for many voters, their support of additional funding for “civil legal aid” is conditioned on their being convinced that it is available to all who need it, i.e. not only the very poor, but also middle class folks.

This obviously means that it is important that we include in our definition of “legal aid” services and programs that are not vigorously means tested, including the many that are provided by courts, libraries and others.

While this might feel a bit counter-intuitive to those of us steeped in decades of using the term “civil legal aid” to mean LSC and IOLTA funded programs, (although actually till about the year 2000 we used “legal services”) in fact thinking about the words themselves, “legal” as relating to the law, and “aid” as being “help,” there is no need for them to be viewed so narrowly, and no reason that to think that they are thought of so restrictively by the public.  On the contrary, the public is pretty confused about distinctions like this that are very important to insiders.

Which means that we can put our energy not into worrying about mis-interpretation of the phrase legal aid (except possibly in our immediate court and ATJ communities) and rather focus on what words can be most effective in underlining the breadth of the concept to all constituencies.

I like the idea that we start using the phrases “community-based legal aid,” and “court-based legal aid,” to describe such services, and even “bar-based legal aid” when provided by a bar organization.  Similarly, phrases like “legal aid, including community and court-based legal aid” underline the breadth and unity of the concept.

This also means that phrases like”legal aid forms”, “legal aid self-help programs,” legal aid clinics,” all of which are very popular, work perfectly.  In some contexts “non-profit legal aid,” “public-private partnership legal aid” and “pro bono legal aid” may also be both clear and helpful.

It is important that we keep focused on the words that work.

Disclosure:  I am on the Advisory Committee of Voices for Civil Justice, but these are my personal, although not necessarily unique, opinions.



About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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5 Responses to Suggestions for an Expansive and Popular Definition of “Civil Legal Aid”

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  5. Claudia Johnson says:

    Richard, should the ABA SCLAID standards apply to those providing this new definition of legal services? I would argue that they should, as most of the concepts there are good and beneficial to the applicant or recipient of those services, like the concepts of “multiple doors”, certainty in intake, treating applicants with respect and clearly explaining what you will and will not do in a timely manner, with enough time so that they can seek other options if the decision is not provide full services, etc. What do you think? Are there elements of these Standards that should not apply? What does SCLAID/ABA think? Some of the standards on regional systems (2.3) cultural competency (2.4), staff diversity (2.5), relationships with the bar (2.8), use of non attorneys (2.9), all seem very pertinent. If these standards don’t apply, or not all of them, then which ones should? I think that if one of the goals is to keep legal non profit and court collaboration going–it would be good to keep a level playing field where these standards (most of them) apply to those providing legal services or legal assistance, regardless of whether they are courts, libraries, or schools, or a mobile or online self help center. What do others think? Are there standards that should not apply? Here is a link to the 2006 SCLAID standards:

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