Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 5.1 on Eligibility Guidelines

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A provider should establish written guidelines to determine an applicant's eligibility.


General considerations

Different kinds of providers will have differing kinds of guidelines for eligibility. Most sources of funding for legal aid set eligibility limits based on income or other financial criteria. Others may use guidelines that relate to the applicant's status or personal characteristics, such as age, place of residence, or membership in a particular targeted population. Still others determine eligibility based on the kind of legal problem that the applicant for service is facing, where the provider only handles a limited range of legal problems. In some situations, eligibility criteria are determined by restrictions imposed by the provider’s funding sources, which may exclude specific populations or problem types or restrict the provider to representation in only certain types of cases. Whatever its specific criteria, a provider should establish a written policy governing eligibility.

In setting eligibility guidelines that are based on financial criteria, a provider should take into consideration local economic conditions, as well as the provider's available resources and established priorities. The guidelines should encourage common sense judgments at intake about the applicant's eligibility, consistent with provider guidelines and funders’ requirements. Specific written guidelines should cover a variety of objective criteria, including prospective income, available assets, family debts and work related expenses, as well as other factors that affect the applicant's financial situation at the time services are requested.

Eligibility policies should make it clear that a determination of financial or other eligibility does not guarantee that the provider will represent the individual. In addition to the provider's case acceptance policies, the provider may also consider factors such as the availability of other assistance to resolve the problem or the consequences to the applicant if service is denied.

Eligibility guidelines should be adopted by the governing body and, if practicable, should be developed with client participation. The governing body should reevaluate the guidelines periodically, particularly when there are changes in economic conditions in the community, or when there are changes in provider resources.

Eligibility determinations

The provider should have systems in place to assure that it obtains sufficient information during the intake interview to permit fair and thoughtful application of established eligibility guidelines. If a provider's eligibility is based on financial factors, the provider should have systems to record sufficient data about an applicant's financial status to make an appropriate eligibility determination. If eligibility for program services is based on other criteria, such as the applicant's type of legal problem, status or membership in a targeted population, the provider should also have systems to record information about the applicant or the legal problem for which assistance is sought to enable the provider's staff to make a determination of the applicant’s eligibility for the provider’s services.

Data should be obtained in a manner that protects confidentiality, demonstrates respect for the applicant for service, and encourages the development of a relationship of trust between the applicant and the provider. For example, questions about family size and domestic or marital status should account for non-traditional family structures of gay and lesbian applicants and others.

Information should be recorded in sufficient detail to document compliance with the eligibility guidelines and to provide a record for review in the event that the decision regarding eligibility is challenged. A decision regarding the applicant's eligibility should be made as quickly as circumstances permit to allow those who are ineligible for service adequate time to take other steps to protect their interests. Applicants who are ineligible for assistance should be referred to other sources of help, if available.

If there is substantial reason to doubt the accuracy of the information the applicant gives, the provider should make appropriate efforts to verify that information. Any inquiry to third parties must protect confidential information the applicant provides. The provider should inform the applicant of any attempt to verify eligibility information and should provide an opportunity for the applicant to explain or rebut any additional information obtained before a final eligibility determination is made.

 Some providers may delegate eligibility screening to persons or agencies other than its own staff or volunteers. In such circumstances, the governing body should establish specific procedures for making eligibility determination, consistent with this Standard, and should closely monitor the third party for compliance.