About Legal Aid Society

WHERE WE CAME FROM

"A man's poverty is no excuse for twisting justice against him"
Exodus 23:6

The idea of equal justice for all has been a part of Anglo-American law since 1215 when King John agreed to the Magna Carta, which stated, "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice."  If equal justice is to be more than an idea, there must also be means to assure it.

Major obstacles to the administration of justice are court costs and fees, and the cost of an attorney. Early English efforts to overcome these obstacles included providing free judicial writs to the poor, development of procedures so that the poor could present their claims without a lawyer, and the Court of Poor Men's Causes. In 1495, Henry VII passed a law allowing poor plaintiffs to sue without paying court costs and assigning them free counsel.

Early American colonists attempted simple, inexpensive means of justice using conscience and common sense. But as laws became more complex, it became difficult for the poor to obtain access to courts.

Reginald Herber Smith in 1919 published Justice and the Poor, a study of the inequalities and inadequacies in the justice system and their effect on the poor. He said the U.S. was not fulfilling its promise of equal justice for all.

From 1910 to 1920, establishment of small claims courts and other efforts were made to simplify the judicial process. In some cases, statutes enabled the judges to assign counsel to indigent civil litigants. This was not a solution, as courts were reluctant to require attorneys to work without pay.

The first formal organization to provide free legal assistance was created in New York City in 1876. By the turn of the century, three cities had legal aid organizations. By 1917, there were 41 legal aid offices. World War I brought a stop to the legal aid movement, since the young men who would do the work were now called into the military service.

The 1920's saw the beginning of the legal aid movement's affiliation with the American Bar Association. The creation of the National Association of Legal Aid Organizations, now the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, followed shortly.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft in 1925 wrote, "If the individual seeking to protect himself is without money to avail himself of such [a legal] procedure, the Constitution and the procedure made inviolable by it do not practically work for the equal benefit of all. Something must be devised by which everyone, however lowly and however poor, however unable by his means to employ a lawyer and to pay court costs, shall be furnished in the opportunity to set this fixed machinery of justice going."

Contrary to misconception, the work of the legal aid lawyers is not focused on class actions. Most of the legal matters handled by legal aid attorneys involve only one client and grow out of the everyday problems of the poor. These matters do not involve controversial social issues and may appear mundane to many, but they represent matters of crisis for the individual client. The consequences may be as serious as the loss of a family's only source of income, homelessness, or the break up of a family. Left unresolved, such problems can cost society far more than the expense of legal representation to address them.

Legal Aid clients are as diverse as our nation, encompassing all races, ethnic groups, and ages. Many are employed but still fall below the financial guidelines. Many were formerly middle class and have become poor because of age, disaster, unemployment, illness, or the breakup of the family.

Poverty is growing at three times the rate of the general population. One out of every four children under six and one in every five children under eighteen live in poverty. For them, access to legal aid can mean the availability of support from an absent parent, a decent home to live in, adequate nutrition and health care, relief from a violent living situation, or access to education and vocational skills. For the working poor, who represent forty percent of the 23 million people over eighteen living in poverty, access to legal aid can preserve employment that makes a difference between remaining productive and independent or joining the ranks of the dependent poor.

In the last fifteen years many state and local studies have reached strikingly consistent findings, that the overwhelming majority of poor people, as many as eighty percent, do not have the advantage of an attorney when they are in serious situations where a lawyer's advice and assistance would make a difference.

FUNDING INFORMATION

The Legal Aid Society is funded by the City of Evansville, Vanderburgh County and the United Way of Southwest Indiana, the Indiana Civil Legal Aid Fund Bill, Indiana Equal Justice Fund, miscellaneous grants and individual donors.

There is no charge to the client for the legal advice and representation provided by Legal Aid.