Eligibility for assistance
The latest data from the American Community Survey indicate that 60.3 million Americans are eligible for civil legal assistance from LSC funded programs.
Legal aid programs funded by LSC have limitations on the clients that they can serve. The primary limitations relate to financial eligibility and status as an alien. LSC programs may use funds from sources other than LSC to serve individuals or groups who do not meet the LSC financial guidelines, but they may not serve aliens who do not meet the alien eligibility guidelines.
Legal aid programs that do not receive funding for LSC often restrict service to clients who meet financial eligibility guidelines. These guidelines often mirror the LSC guidelines but may be more generous or more restrictive than those guidelines, depending on the program’s priorities or on restrictions that may be imposed by other funders.
LSC-funded programs may only use LSC funds to provide legal assistance to clients who meet specific financial eligibility guidelines. The basic rule is that LSC programs serve clients at or under 125% of the Poverty Guidelines, or $32,188 for a family of 4 in 2019.
Asset ceilings and eligibility
LSC programs set their own asset ceilings for individual clients. These asset ceilings may be waived under certain circumstances. LSC programs may serve individuals who meet the asset ceilings and whose income is below 125% of the current official Federal Poverty Guidelines (poverty guidelines), which are revised annually by the U.S. government. In addition, under certain circumstances LSC programs may serve individuals who meet the asset guidelines and whose income exceeds 125% of the poverty guidelines.
Income and eligibility
LSC programs may serve, without regard to income, those individuals who are seeking to maintain benefits provided by governmental programs for low-income individuals or families or whose income is primarily devoted to medical or nursing home expenses. LSC programs may also serve individuals whose income does not exceed 200% of the poverty guidelines if they are seeking to maintain or obtain certain governmental benefits or if the program has determined that they should be financially eligible based on certain other specified factors.
Legal assistance to organizations of low-income persons
LSC-funded programs are also permitted to provide legal assistance to organizations of low-income persons, such as welfare rights or tenant organizations. To qualify for LSC funded assistance, the client organization must lack the means to retain private counsel, and the majority of its members must be financially eligible under the LSC regulations; or the organization must have as its principal activity the delivery of services to financially eligible members of the community.
LSC-funded programs cannot serve certain aliens, prisoners, or certain public housing evictees
LSC-funded programs are permitted to serve financially eligible individuals who are U.S. citizens or who are members of specified categories of aliens. LSC programs cannot assist undocumented aliens; aliens seeking asylum, refugee status, or conditional entrant status; or other categories of aliens who are legally in the U.S., including students and tourists.
Furthermore, LSC programs are not permitted to provide certain services to prisoners. Specifically, LSC programs cannot participate in civil litigation on behalf of a person incarcerated in a federal, state or local prison or participate in administrative proceedings challenging the conditions of incarceration.
In additiona, LSC programs are not permitted to represent persons convicted of or charged with drug crimes in public housing evictions when the evictions are based on threats to the health or safety of public housing residents or employees.
Usually no formal tests for merit or significance
Unlike civil legal aid plans in most developed countries, neither LSC nor most state funders impose a formal “merit” test on applicants for service and representation. Nor is there a “significance test” required by LSC or state funders.
Programs may impose their own criteria for service, such as only providing advice and brief service in certain kinds of cases or providing assistance only in particular categories of cases or with regard to specific issues. But the decision to limit service is a program-by-program decision and not a decision made by LSC or most other major institutional funders, such as state IOLTA programs. Some other funders limit the use of their resources to certain clients or types of cases, such as domestic violence victims.
Generally no co-payments or client contributions
Civil legal aid programs generally do not impose co-payments or client contributions from the clients served, and neither LSC nor state funders require co-payments or client contributions. In fact, LSC prohibits its programs from using co-payments for clients eligible for LSC funded services.
In addition, since the U.S. legal system is not generally a “loser pays” system, civil legal aid clients and programs are not usually required to reimburse an opponent’s legal fees and costs if they lose.