Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 2.3 on Participation in Statewide and Regional Systems

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A provider should participate in regional and statewide delivery systems to improve the systems' capacity to deliver a full range of services that address the legal needs of low income communities.


General considerations

Legal aid providers are part of a system of legal services, social services and other organizations concerned with the legal needs of low income people. Each provider should actively work in concert with pertinent organizations in the system to be better able to meet the needs of low income persons with civil legal problems and to provide relatively uniform access for all persons who seek legal assistance.

There are different levels of the system in which a provider operates that may be relevant to its efforts to respond to the needs of the low income population it serves. Most providers operate within a single state and the statewide system is central to its work. At times, particularly in very large, populous states, a provider may also be part of delivery system that has a regional focus. To the extent that some providers administer special programs in more than one state, such as service to migrant farm workers, they would be participants in the delivery systems in multiple states. Some issues, like immigration and aspects of consumer protection, are national in scope and providers may participate in networks designed to address systemic concerns associated with the issue.

In some cases, legal aid providers and other organizations may operate as a system in a locality, such as a city or county. This Standard addresses the issues associated with state and regional delivery systems. Participation in local delivery system is discussed in the commentary to Standards where such systems are particularly relevant.

There are many types of legal aid providers as defined in these Standards, as well as other entities that are relevant to a statewide or regional delivery system. In addition to legal aid providers, public interest law firms and similar legal advocacy groups often address issues that are pertinent to the legal needs of low income communities. Private attorneys often volunteer to respond to the legal needs of low income persons as a part of a firm’s commitment to pro bono services, through panels organized by bar associations, Older Americans Act programs and other organizations, as well as participating directly with legal aid providers.

Some entities that are organized to serve non-legal needs of a specific population, such as the elderly or victims of domestic violence, may have a small staff of lawyers or a panel of volunteer attorneys to address the legal needs of persons whom they serve. Law schools and law school clinics frequently offer support and assistance to low income persons with legal problems. Court-based programs may offer legal information to pro se litigants. There are also low income advocacy organizations and groups that do not represent clients directly, but who advocate on issues that are pertinent to low income persons.

In addition, there are a variety of other entities that do not provide legal services directly, but do offer services and resources that may help low income persons respond to their legal problems more effectively. They include non-profit human services organizations, ecumenical and community based institutions, and governmental or quasi-governmental institutions. In addition, many states have access to justice commissions that help raise funds for legal aid and generally support the system overall. The judiciary and state bar committees in many states are actively involved in state planning for the legal aid system and support statewide fundraising efforts on its behalf.

Some participation in the overall delivery system involves planning principally with other legal aid providers to coordinate key aspects of the delivery system, such as regional or statewide intake and substantive focus. On other issues, participation with the larger network that includes non-legal aid providers may be called for.

All legal aid providers should actively participate in their statewide system, and where appropriate, in their regional system. A number of purposes may be served by such participation:

  • The efficiency and effectiveness of the system can be enhanced in many instances by joint planning to coordinate approaches to delivery issues and common substantive problems and to avoid duplication.
  • Some providers are better situated than others to provide particular services to low income persons in need of legal assistance. Some providers, for instance, may not be able to offer assistance in certain substantive areas or to certain populations because of resource limitations or restrictions on their funding. Joint planning and coordination of services should take place to assure that a full range of services is available.
  • In any system for the delivery of legal services, it will be easier for some to gain access to the system than others. Cooperation among providers is important for the system to be able to offer relatively uniform access to all persons in need of legal assistance.
  • Resources available to respond to the legal needs of low income persons are generally insufficient to meet the need. Participation in the larger delivery system should identify strategies to expand available resources, particularly resources that can be used to engage in representation that is restricted by other funding sources and to deploy those resources rationally throughout the system.

Effective and efficient use of resources

It is incumbent on legal aid providers to work in concert so that maximum use is made of the resources that are available. There are a number of ways in which providers working together can make the most of available resources:

  • Coordination in the use of delivery mechanisms to assure their efficient use. A group of providers might agree that responsibility for one aspect of the service delivery system should reside with one organization. Providers working together, for instance, might decide to create a centralized capacity for intake. Some states or regions operate with a centralized hotline or other mechanism for providing all clients in an area with advice and brief services through one provider or a coalition of organizations. All organizations serving the low income community might jointly create and support a referral system to assure that persons in needs of assistance are sent to the best available source of help.
  • Coordination and collaboration to facilitate the effective use of technology, including joint approaches when appropriate. Through statewide technology planning, legal aid providers can share software development costs, centralize training development and implementation and avoid expensive duplication of effort. Thus, for example, providers may pool resources and cooperate to develop a single website to link low income persons to an appropriate source of information and assistance and to inform the general public about legal aid. Some providers have found that jointly selecting and implementing case management software can reduce overall costs and facilitate the referral of cases among providers.
  • Assignment to one organization among participants in a statewide delivery system the primary responsibility for conducting legislative and administrative advocacy with state level entities, including the legislature. Not all providers are in a position to conduct legislative and administrative advocacy and such advocacy before the state legislature and state level administrative bodies is sometimes best carried out by one organization that can devote its resources to establishing the presence that is often necessary for successful advocacy in legislative and rule-making processes.
  • Pooling of resources by participants in a larger system so as to centralize development of materials and approaches for community legal education. Joint planning can help determine what can be disseminated at the state or regional level and what needs to be employed locally.
  • Development of a joint capacity to provide support for advocates and others essential to the system. The statewide system should facilitate practitioners getting training in pertinent substantive areas and learning appropriate skills to serve their clients. Training and task forces should be available, as appropriate, to assure effectiveness communication and coordination among practitioners in key areas of law and practice pertinent to the legal needs of the low income community. Providers should also assure that there is a capacity in the system to keep practitioners informed of new and ongoing developments in the law and policy that affect low income persons. Cooperative planning should consider areas in which practitioners from different providers can jointly develop and execute strategies on broad legal issues that affect large numbers of low income persons.
  • Working together to realize economies of scale in connection with administrative needs, such as bulk purchasing, pooling employee benefits and sharing space. Providers joining together can sometimes obtain a more favorable price for goods and services because they offer a larger number of potential users or can cost-effectively share costs.

Full range of service

One goal of a delivery system should be to offer a full range of services to low income persons in need of legal assistance. By coordinating how resources are deployed legal aid providers in a system should seek to increase the reach of the resources that are available so a full range of services can be offered.

There are practical limitations that prevent some providers from offering a full range of services themselves. The funding of some providers comes with restrictions that may affect the substantive issues that can be pursued, the remedies that can be sought or the populations that can be served. Small providers are generally limited by size with regard to the substantive areas they can undertake and the populations to which they can reach out. Providers working cooperatively in a statewide or regional delivery system should develop and support strategies to fill the gaps caused by such limitations.

All appropriate forms of representation. A full range of services includes all appropriate forms of assistance, in all substantive areas necessary to respond to the compelling needs of the low income population. The forms of representation include:

  • Legal advice and referral;
  • Brief legal services;
  • Assistance to pro se litigants;
  • Representation in negotiation;
  • Representation in the judicial system and in administrative adjudicatory processes using all forms of representation appropriate for the individual, group or class being represented;
  • Community economic development;
  • Transactional assistance; Representation before state and local legislative, administrative and other governmental or private bodies that make law or policies affecting the legal rights and responsibilities of low income persons;
  • Assistance to clients using mediation and other alternate dispute resolution mechanisms;
  • Community legal education, including providing legal information to low income groups and individuals.

Service to all populations. A full range of services also means access to legal services is available to all low income populations in the provider's service area. Some funding sources proscribe the use of their funds to serve certain populations, such as undocumented immigrants and incarcerated persons. Where a major funding source imposes limitations on serving a specific population, it is particularly important for providers to plan together to make legal services available to those who are barred and to reach out to them. Undocumented persons, for instance, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and may also be chary of seeking assistance. Persons who are in jails and prisons may have legal issues associated with the conditions of their incarceration and also have difficulty responding to personal legal issues that arise while they are incarcerated.

In addition, there are many populations that are isolated by geography, language, culture, race, disability or institutionalization as well as restrictions imposed by employment. Without intentional effort to reach out and to overcome the barriers that exist for populations isolated by circumstance, their access to and utilization of available legal aid is likely to be limited. Providers should work with others in the system to assure that there is access to all such populations and that there is a substantive capacity to respond to their special legal needs. Both legal aid providers and non-legal entities, such as social service agencies and faith based organizations, may plan and work cooperatively to serve such isolated populations. In some instances, one provider may specialize in reaching out to and serving these and other isolated populations and other providers may work in concert with such organizations to support them and take advantage of their special expertise.

The challenge of reaching and serving isolated populations varies among the populations in question. There also often are legal issues that relate directly to the factors that isolate certain populations. To respond may require special outreach efforts and specialized delivery approaches. To serve populations that are isolated by culture and language, for instance, calls for a high level of linguistic and cultural capacity in providers that need to respond to their legal needs. Work requirements for low wage workers often limit their capacity to visit or even call a legal aid office during working hours, so that special hours for intake and assistance may be necessary. Some workers, such as migrant workers, many of whom may be undocumented may be deliberately cut off from legal assistance by their employers and require special outreach in locations spread throughout a state.

The institutionalized may be hard to reach and in addition may have legal problems that arise out of the circumstances that led to their institutionalization. Persons in nursing homes may have significant issues associated with the care they receive and the conditions in the facility. The homebound elderly may encounter a number of legal problems that are a function of their circumstance.

Relatively uniform access to legal aid

Providers should also work with other relevant organizations in the delivery system to assure that access to the legal aid that is offered is relatively uniform across geographic lines and among all low income populations. Many factors affect who may have greater access to legal aid. Providers should seek to overcome known barriers, both in their own planning as a provider and in their interaction with the statewide and region delivery systems.

Office location can have a significant impact. Experience demonstrates that low income persons in large rural areas, particularly in relatively underfunded states are less likely to seek and obtain services than those in towns and cities that have an office. On the other hand, in very large cities, distance and poor transportation systems can affect who actually seeks and obtains services.

Disparate funding opportunities may also have an impact on the uniformity of access across a provider's service area. Higher levels of funding may be offered for service to a particular population, such as persons with HIV/AIDS or the elderly, or in specific substantive areas, such home foreclosures or child support that result in a higher level of service in those areas.

As has been noted, the isolation of many people because of the particular circumstance significantly affects who gains access to available services. Communities that are isolated culturally and linguistically, in particular, may have limited access to the system.

Providers and others should work together to establish and support systems that will expand the capacity of the system to respond to those who are not receiving services. Providers, in cooperation with others, may establish delivery mechanisms, such as centralized telephone intake to increase the capacity of people who are isolated geographically to gain access to needed help.

Resource development and allocation

 Many providers have found that working together to raise funds can be a successful way to address the relative lack of resources available to serve the legal needs of the low income