Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 1.2-2 on Board Members from the Communities Served by the Provider

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The governing body should include members who are or have been eligible to receive legal assistance from the provider.


General considerations

The governing body will have better insights into the legal needs of the communities it serves if its membership includes persons who have directly experienced those needs. For many legal aid providers a primary criterion for eligibility for service will be the applicant’s financial means. In order to have board members who understand the challenges of poverty, the governing body should include members who are or have been financially eligible for the provider's services. Other providers may target a particular population, such as the elderly or persons with disabilities, or specific substantive issues, such as access to health care, without regard to the financial means of persons served. Such specialized providers should, if practicable, include members of the population served on their governing body.

Supporting full participation by representatives of the low income community

The governing body should be aware of potential barriers to full participation by representatives of the low income community and should take steps to help overcome those barriers. Board members who have experienced poverty and are from a low income community that the provider is serving will have insights and knowledge that professional members of the governing body may lack. Some low income representatives, however, may feel intimidated by attorneys on the governing body and may be unfamiliar with legal terminology and the operation of the legal system that are germane to decisions that the governing body needs to make. It is important, therefore, that the provider act to overcome any impediments to full communication among board members.

A number of strategies may enhance effective communication and full participation on the governing body of all its members. The provider should provide orientation and ongoing training of community members regarding operation of the provider, regarding the legal system particularly as it affects low income communities and regarding issues affecting the delivery of legal services. Some providers hold separate meetings of community members before regularly scheduled board meetings to answer questions and assure that the members are fully prepared to participate and present their insights.

The provider should consider including members of the governing body in its cultural competence trainings that are designed to facilitate better communication across cultural lines. Social events that stimulate informal interaction among board members can also increase familiarity and trust that foster ease of communication in formal meetings.

Low income persons' lack of economic resources may hinder full participation on the governing body if, for example, they cannot pay for child care while they are at meetings, if they cannot take time off work without losing wages, or if they cannot afford transportation to get to meetings. The provider should pay reasonable expenses associated with low income representatives' participation on the governing body and should schedule board and committee meetings to facilitate all members' attendance.

Other means for involvement of low income persons

Some legal aid providers may encounter legal or institutional impediments to having non-lawyers on the governing body. A legal aid provider that is part of a larger organization that exists for a variety of purposes in addition to representing the low income persons in civil legal matters may find it impractical or impossible to include low income persons on its governing body. The provider should nevertheless strive to maintain other means of involving persons from the low income community, so that the provider's policies maximize the effectiveness of its service to its clients. Such a provider may, for example, create a client advisory committee to provide advice about delivery structure, priorities and other policy matters affecting assistance to low income persons.