Civil legal assistance helps low-income people navigate various civil matters like
housing evictions, home foreclosures, predatory lending, child support, and domestic
violence. It also helps people access government benefits like Social Security,
Veteran’s Benefits, disability, unemployment insurance, food stamps, cash assistance,
and health insurance. Without the services of a lawyer, low-income people with civil-
legal problems may have no practical way of protecting their rights and advancing
The program to provide legal services to the poor has never been without controversy.
Depending on the how the political winds have blown, support for legal services in the
United States has waxed and waned. Regardless of politics, however, the civil legal
assistance 1 program has a long history of effective representation of low-income
persons and has achieved many significant results for the low-income community
from the courts, administrative agencies, and legislative bodies. With the addition of
federal funding more than 50 years ago, the legal assistance program has expanded
access to legal representation throughout the country and provided significant relief
to millions of low-income and vulnerable persons. Without the civil legal assistance
program, there would be virtually no access to civil justice for low-income persons in
the United States, and the goal of equal justice for all would be only a distant dream.
Although equal access to justice is far from complete, the legal services program
provides vital legal assistance to our nation’s low-income community.
The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Consortium for the National
Equal Justice Library has prepared and updated this brief history of civil legal
assistance for the low-income community in the United States, from its privately
funded beginnings, through its achievement of federal funding, to its expansion and
growth into a national program operating throughout the United States, Puerto Rico,
and former U.S. territories in the South Pacific. We also describe some of the political
battles that have been fought around the legal services program and the restrictions
that have come with government funding. We conclude with some brief thoughts
about the future.