A system of nonprofit organizations that provide legal services to people who cannot afford an attorney.
In the United States, more than sixteen hundred legal aid agencies provide LEGAL REPRESENTATION without cost or for a nominal fee to people who are unable to pay the usual amount for a lawyer's services. These agencies are sponsored by charitable organizations, lawyers' associations, and law schools, and by federal, state, and local governments. In some states legal aid services are partially funded from the interest earned in law firm trust accounts.
The first U.S. legal aid agency was founded in 1876 in New York City by the German Society. The agency assisted German immigrants with legal problems. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, lawyers' associations took the lead in providing low-cost legal services. In 1911 the National Alliance of Legal Aid Societies was established to promote the concept of legal aid to people who were poor. The alliance, now known as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, publishes information and holds conferences dealing with legal aid issues.
Legal aid agencies handle civil cases, including those concerning ADOPTION, BANKRUPTCY, DIVORCE, employment issues, and LANDLORD AND TENANT disputes. These agencies may not use federal funds to handle criminal cases. The criminal counterpart to the U.S. legal aid system is called the public defender system. Public defenders are funded through state and local agencies and federal grants.
Legal aid agencies are run by attorneys and administrative support staff. They are often supplemented by law students, who participate in legal aid clinics that give students opportunities to work with indigent clients. In addition, many private attorneys volunteer their time to assist these agencies. In some jurisdictions the court may appoint private attorneys to handle legal aid clients. Despite these PRO BONO (donated) services, legal aid agencies typically have more clients than they can serve. When they do, they may exclude complicated matters, such as divorce, from the legal services they provide.
The scope of legal aid widened dramatically in 1964, when President LYNDON B. JOHNSON established the Office of Legal Services. This agency organized new legal aid programs in many states, then suffered budget cuts in the early 1970s. In 1974 Congress disbanded the office and transferred its functions to the newly created LEGAL SERVICES CORPORATION (Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 378 [42 U.S.C.A. § 2996]). The corporation is a private, nonprofit organization that provides financial support to legal aid agencies through the distribution of grants. It also supports legal aid attorneys and staff through training, research, and technical assistance.