Civil legal aid: Support

This special topic history focuses on the development, growth and demise of federal funding for civil legal aid support. It was written by Alan Houseman.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) originally funded both direct providers of civil legal aid and a “support” infrastructure that backed up the providers. LSC has not funded this support infrastructure since FY 1995, but much of it continues with other funding.

The federally funded support infrastructure included:

  • national support centers
  • state support
  • training
  • technical assistance, and
  • information sharing and dissemination

Support: An overview
To a certain extent, the elevation of support was to be expected. As the delivery system matured in any given place, it became clear that there were many desirable roles between national advocates and local office staff and that the support centers had only scratched the surface of needed national activities. Training was an obvious way to improve quality of service and it made sense to initially develop much of the training at the national level. State support addressed the inability of local county- or city-based programs to address state policy issues and to coordinate advocacy within a state.

It was also predictable that support would come under criticism from within. Leadership by support centers would be perceived to be less necessary as local programs built experienced staff and law developed in most of the poverty law areas.

Finally, it was predictable that support policy should be a bellwether of the maturing of the overall delivery system. In the beginning, aggressive and imaginative legal services lawyers had freedom to take on new problems, develop new theories, and establish new rights. By the time of the Legal Services Corporation, much of that freedom had disappeared. Large and intricate bodies of law had developed. Except for national advocacy (and some state advocacy), there was an expectation that field programs could handle all problems in these areas. Clients had come to expect this performance. However, only with extensive training, specialization and support were the expectations reachable.

As the Corporation settled legal services into a service delivery bureaucracy, support became a central and growing part of the system. It undertook critical advocacy at the national and state level that local programs could not provide to their clients. It created and maintained networks of advocates in states and nationally to assure effective coordination and communication. It provided essential background materials and manuals. It participated in training.

If support was no longer the engine of reform, it was a major source of quality and competency.

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