A Century of SCLAID Timeline

Highlights from the History of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid & Indigent Defense (1920-2020)


Throughout the century that the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense has been in existence, its members have made many contributions to the development of legal aid and indigent defense in the United States. As of the 100th anniversary of its founding, the Committee has had twenty-nine chairs, eight of whom became ABA presidents, along with four other SCLAID members who had previously served as ABA presidents. Below is a sampling of highlights from SCLAID’s history, and for a downloadable version of this history, click the button below.

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The Genesis of SCLAID

SCLAID owes it creation to two men and a book. The men were Charles Evans Hughes (left) and Reginald Heber Smith, and the book was Smith's JUSTICE AND THE POOR. Smith completed his masterpiece in 1918 at the age of 29 while working as the directing attorney of the Boston Legal Aid Society; the book was published in 1919. Hughes, who had been the 1916 Republican presidential nominee, a former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice (and would be a future Chief Justice), was at that time the president of the Legal Aid Society in New York and was inspired by the book. He used his influence to make legal aid the topic of a plenary session at the 1920 ABA Convention. With these foundations, during the 1920 convention the ABA voted to create a "Special Committee on Legal Aid Work" (SCLAW). Hughes agreed to chair the new Special Committee, and the young Reginald Heber Smith was appointed as a member.

Establishing a Standing Committee

Hughes was then chosen the following year as the next U.S. Secretary of State, prompting his resignation from both the Legal Aid Society and the Committee. He and others decided to institutionalize legal aid as a major responsibility of the ABA by elevating it to the status of a "standing committee." After a successful ABA vote to change the status, Reginald Heber Smith took over as the Committee’s chair and continued in that role until 1938. SCLAW's primary goal during its first four decades was to increase the number of local civil legal aid societies, but that was not the only accomplishment. The Committee also focused on issues of defense of indigent persons accused of crime, articulating policy positions that preceded the United States Supreme Court's landmark decisions on the right to counsel in such matters. However, it was not until the 1960s that indigent defense was formally added to the Committee's responsibilities.


Today, SCLAID’s primary goals have been increasing the number of local civil legal aid organizations and their funding and ensuring that indigent persons accused of crime and delinquency have access to counsel and a proper defense. SCLAID articulates and seeks to implements the ABA’s fundamental policy of ensuring the availability of legal services and counsel for the poor in our nation’s civil, criminal and juvenile justice systems. SCLAID accomplishes these objectives in part through its close relationship with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which provides for federally funded civil legal aid in the United States. Examples include SCLAID’s active role in assessing the President’s appointees to the LSC Board of Directors, in providing commentary on proposed LSC regulations, and by advising on Congressional funding requests made by LSC and advocating for such funding.

Highlights from 100 years of SCLAID


The Beginning of a Partnership

SCLAW's Chair, Reginald Heber Smith, played a prominent role in drafting the constitution and bylaws of the National Association of Legal Aid Organizations (NALAO), which was formed at a 1923 conference in Cleveland. He also recruited NALAO's first part-time "Executive Secretary," John Bradway, and developed an enduring partnership with him. This began a close collaboration between the Committee and the legal aid association, now known as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), which continues today.


SCLAW's annual report states its position on the right to counsel in criminal cases

"We believe that every man accused of serious crime is absolutely entitled to employ one and that, if he is too poor to employ one, society must furnish him one." At that time, except for death penalty cases, there was no right to counsel under the U.S. Constitution. A few states gave indigent defendants a right to free counsel in felony cases either by statute or under their state’s constitution, and a few others had adopted public defender legislation, creating the type of public defender system Clara Shortridge Foltz (left) had pioneered in California. But in many states, defendants had no right to counsel, statutory or constitutional, and it was pure luck if they got a lawyer, even one who was drafted to work for free.


"Model Public Defender Law"

SCLAW participated in the drafting and promulgation of a "Model Public Defender Law."


SCLAW prepares the first ABA Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

It later updated them in 1966, 1986, and 2006, to accommodate changes in federal government policy and innovations in civil legal aid delivery. The Standards are again being updated in 2020 to coincide with the centennial of SCLAID's founding.


Gideon v. Wainwright

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that indigent defendants were entitled to the right to counsel in all felony cases. Douglas v. California, a companion case to Gideon, established the right to counsel on first appeal. However, the mechanism to efficiently provide such counsel was lacking in the state courts, and many courts simply resorted to conscription of untrained pro bono lawyers to provide defense counsel. In 1964 the Ford Foundation awarded a grant of $6 million to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, then an ABA affiliate organization, to create alternative models for indigent defense representation.



SCLAW finally became SCLAID when the ABA House of Delegates approved a motion for the name change presented by then-chair John Cummisky, Whitney North Seymour, and Lewis Powell (left).


OEO Legal Services Program is endorsed

SCLAID chair John Cummisky presented a motion asking the ABA House of Delegates to endorse the OEO Legal Services Program. The motion's passage without dissent began the partnership between the ABA and the federal government's legal services program that continues to the present day.


SCLAID adds temporary "Associates and Advisory Committee"

SCLAID added a temporary "Associates and Advisory Committee" to assist the OEO Legal Services Program in problem situations.


SCLAID plays a major role in defeating congressional amendments

SCLAID and its then-chair, John Robb, played a major role in defeating congressional amendments that would have both denied OEO-funded legal services lawyers the ability to represent clients in cases against any government agency and allowed state governors an absolute veto power over grants, a process SCLAID repeated again in 1969.


ABA House of Delegates adopts a resolution

At SCLAID's urging, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution stating that the promotion of defender services in the state and local bar associations should be given the same priority by the ABA as had been accorded the problem of rendering more adequate civil representation to indigents.


The National Defender Project creates 70 indigent defense projects throughout America

These programs became models for local and statewide defender systems throughout the United States. SCLAID assisted the National Defender Project in planning and conducting a "National Conference on Defender Services" in the spring of 1969 examining each type of defender model, thus setting the direction for defender services in the future.


Legal Services Corporation is recommended to replace the OEO Legal Services Program

SCLAID cosponsored and codirected (with the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities) a study that recommended creation of an independent Legal Services Corporation to replace the OEO Legal Services Program. This helped to legitimize a legislative effort to create that Corporation, which finally succeeded after three attempts in July 1974.


The "Bar Information Program (BIP)" is created

SCLAID initiated the "Bar Information Program (BIP)" to provide technical assistance to bar leaders, legislators and others seeking to improve indigent defense systems. BIP grew and expanded its mandate to include groundbreaking research on indigent defense. Working with The Spangenberg Group, BIP produced the first national studies on funding of indigent defense by state and assigned counsel rates. BIP’s work formed the foundation for many of the policy proposals on indigent defense systems initiated by SCLAID and adopted by the ABA during this period, including, for example, a policy opposing the awarding of government contracts for criminal defense services on the basis of cost alone and without reference to quality of representation.


Grassroots campaign saves LSC

Under the leadership of its then-chair, Laurie Zelon, SCLAID played a prominent role in the ABA's massive grassroots campaign to save LSC from attempts to abolish the program. As an LSC president during this difficult period observed, "Without the ABA's critical support, the Legal Services Corporation would not have survived."


The Project to Expand Resources for Legal Services (PERLS) and the Access to Justice Support Project are created

SCLAID started two programs to encourage and support state and local efforts to improve access to the civil justice system: The Project to Expand Resources for Legal Services (PERLS) to provide technical assistance and guidance to help increase resources for civil legal services to the poor, and the Access to Justice Support Project to provide information, training, and technical assistance to state Access to Justice Commissions and other state-level partnerships to improve and expand access to justice. In 2006, SCLAID combined and expanded upon these two projects to form what is now known as the ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives.


The Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System are adopted

The ABA House adopted SCLAID-proposed Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, which articulated the fundamental criteria for delivering effective and efficient representation to accused persons who cannot afford to hire an attorney. These principles have been adopted by bar associations, defense delivery systems, incorporated in legislation establishing defender programs, and cited in court opinions. They have become the standards used to evaluate defender services across the country.


The ABA adopts revised Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases

The ABA adopted revised Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases developed by the Death Penalty Representation Project and SCLAID.


40th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright

SCLAID issued Gideon's Broken Promise: America's Continuing Quest for Equal Justice - A Report on the American Bar Association's Hearings on the Right to Counsel in Criminal Proceedings to mark the 40th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright.


ABA House of Delegates adopts a resolution

SCLAID worked closely with an ABA Presidential Commission on Access to Justice. The Commission produced a resolution, adopted in 2006 by the House of Delegates, urging governments "to provide legal representation as a matter of right ... in cases in which basic human needs are at stake."


SCLAID successfully obtains House adoption of Eight Guidelines of Public Defense Related to Excessive Workloads

SCLAID successfully obtained House adoption of Eight Guidelines of Public Defense Related to Excessive Workloads to provide guidance to public defense programs and lawyers who provide such representation when they are confronted with too many persons to represent and are thus prevented from discharging their responsibilities under professional conduct rules. Norman Lefstein, nationally-recognized expert on indigent defense and longtime member of SCLAID's Indigent Defense Advisory Group, served as the Reporter on this project.


"Model Access Act," and "Basic Principles for Implementing a Right to Counsel" are adopted

In 2008, SCLAID enlisted several ABA sections to join a "Civil Right to Counsel Working Group." That Working Group produced two resolutions providing further guidance on implementation of a right to counsel in civil matters: A "Model Access Act," and "Basic Principles for Implementing a Right to Counsel," both of which were adopted in 2010 by the House of Delegates.


Standards for Language Access in Courts is adopted

SCLAID produced, and the House of Delegates adopted as ABA policy, Standards for Language Access in Courts.


ABA Directory of Law Governing Appointment of Counsel in State Court Proceedings is started

SCLAID collaborated with the Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, and with the assistance of the Judicial Division, to begin a detailed state-by-state study of the types of civil cases where poor people already have rights to counsel or judges possess the discretionary power to appoint counsel for them. In some instances, these rights or powers are based on state statutes and in others are found in state constitutional decisions, which are often little known and difficult to locate. In 2014, this study culminated in the online ABA Directory of Law Governing Appointment of Counsel in State Court Proceedings.


SCLAID completes The Missouri Report

SCLAID completed The Missouri Report, a significant new, Delphi-based analysis of public defender workloads in that state, establishing a model approach applicable in other jurisdictions.


SCLAID publishes two reports

SCLAID published two reports, national in scope, on topics both civil and criminal: A comprehensive examination of state access to justice commissions titled Access to Justice Commissions: Increasing Effectiveness Through Adequate Staffing and Funding, and an in-depth look at three model public defense programs, Exemplary Defense: A Study of Three Groundbreaking Projects in Public Defense.


ABArray Legal Aid Funding Report is created

After two decades of continuous collection of comprehensive data on the amounts and sources of funding for civil legal aid services throughout the country, SCLAID transitioned this longitudinal dataset to a new, dynamic, and interactive online platform called the ABArray Legal Aid Funding Report, which will serve as a critical tool to support ongoing efforts nationwide to increase funding for legal aid.


SCLAID 100 initiative is launched

To commemorate the centennial of its founding, SCLAID launched its "SCLAID 100" initiative in order to both educate the legal community about the history of the standing committee as well as to focus on the role of the ABA in continuing to lead the national access-to-justice movement.