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What is Legal Aid?

Updated on May 5, 2010

Legal Aid, in Anglo-American law, refers to the provision of legal advice and representation, free or at a nominal cost, for persons who are financially unable to employ a lawyer. Legal aid generally includes assistance in both civil and criminal cases.

Since 1949 England has had free legal aid supported by the government and administered by the Law Society.

Legal Aid in Civil Cases

In the United States, the administration of legal aid in civil cases is carried on by an incorporated, nonprofit, society with a board of directors to determine the broad policies of operation. The agency employs full-time lawyers and supporting personnel to run a law office for the poor. Standards relating to eligibility, scope, and general procedures have been developed over the years by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, founded in 1911. By the early 1970's, 600 offices handled civil cases for indigent clients.

From the late 19th century to the 1960's, funds to support legal aid came from local community chests or funds, or from lawyers in private practice. In 1965 the U. S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) took the important step of financing legal services within its program.

Because OEO legal services formed a part of the "war against poverty," efforts were aimed at practices and institutions that appeared to be barriers to the assertion of rights and powers of poor people. Even with the millions supplied by the federal government, legal services in the 1970's did not have budgets sufficient to meet the full needs. Therefore, class action suits designed to benefit large numbers of indigent clients who suffered from similar legal grievances often got priority over cases for individuals, such as those involving divorce, garnishment, small claims, and eviction.

The new program created some controversy within bar associations and other segments of government and the public. Among the charges made against the projects and their young lawyers were immaturity, incompetency, abrasive-ness, and disrespect for time-honored courtroom procedures. But supporters such as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the American Bar Association held that OEO legal services reflected dedication and hard work.

Legal Aid in Criminal Matters

The Supreme Court has held in several instances that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of counsel in all serious criminal cases. Salaried defense lawyers, usually called public defenders, provide legal aid for indigent defendants accused of violation of the law. In a few cities, legal aid societies include criminal cases in their scope of services. See legal aid society.

Most of the defender offices are a part of the local government, municipal or county, with operating funds appropriated from tax revenues. The defender in charge is selected in a variety of ways: by the judges, by election, through a special commission, or by civil service examination and appointment.

The National Legal Aid and Defender Association establishes standards and provides research and other administrative assistance for public defenders.


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