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"Equal justice under law" is one of the oldest foundations of legal service in America. The words are inscribed on the U.S. Supreme Court building, and the phrase is considered a societal ideal based on the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, finding equal justice can be challenging for poor, vulnerable, or marginalized individuals.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that all states are required to provide an attorney for criminal defendants who cannot afford their own. The Court reasoned that any defendant too poor to hire an attorney cannot be ensured to have a fair trail unless counsel is provided, underscoring the importance of legal representation in court.
In 1974, President Richard B. Nixon signed the Legal Services Corporation ("LSC"), establishing a publicly-funded non-profit to provide non-criminal legal services to people living below the poverty line in America. According to the Department of Justice, civil legal services help low- and middle-income families access basic needs such as healthcare, housing, public benefits, employment, and education services. Today, the Legal Services Corporation is the single largest funder of civil legal aid in the country with 134 offices in every state and territory.
In addition to LSC-funded programs, there are hundreds of other private or independent-run legal aid organizations that provide services to both general and specialized populations. Many organizations specialize in domestic violence prevention, immigration, prisoner re-entry, or assisting homeless and mentally ill populations.
Despite the number of legal aid organizations in America, there is still a widening justice gap with an increasing number of poor people unable to access legal services. Both geographic and language barriers can increase difficulties, and more than 50% of people seeking legal help are turned away because of limited resources within legal aid organizations.
This guide details both local and national legal aid organizations and programs designed to increase access to justice for people living below the poverty line.