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Standard 5.1 on the Organization’s Intake System and Access to Services

Standard 4.11 | Table of Contents | Standard 5.2


A legal aid organization should design and operate an intake system that reflects strategic decision-making and treats all persons seeking assistance with respect, accurately identifies their legal needs, and promptly determines the assistance to be offered. It is important that intake systems are developed with user-based design principles, have been tested for accessibility for users, maintain the confidentiality of prospective client information, and have been evaluated through usability studies.


General Considerations

A legal aid organization has a responsibility to operate in ways that facilitate access to its services for all members of the population it serves. Many aspects of its operation affect the accessibility of its services: The organization's overall delivery strategy; including areas of specialization and practice concentration; office location; utilization of technology; intake hours and strategy; design of facilities; outreach and community engagement, including community-based intake; coordination with other legal aid organizations; and the involvement of contract and volunteer attorneys.

In furtherance of facilitating access to services, an organization should continue meeting clients where they are in terms of ever-evolving technology by creating and maintaining mobile access, maximizing accessibility and usability of client-facing technology tools, and maximizing access to the organization's resources through strategic, robust outreach, intake, and referral systems with partners. Automated triaging tools and online intake may increase an organization's efficiency in conducting intakes, along with the speed with which individuals are matched with the most appropriate resources and referrals for their situation. 

An organization needs to be attentive to how economic and demographic patterns and legal needs are changing in their service areas. It also needs to be attentive to the many barriers that clients face when trying to access services and ensure that they are available in areas of increased poverty and need and are designed to overcome barriers. 

Factors Affecting Access 

Delivery and intake strategy. The overall delivery structure and priorities of an organization will impact accessibility to clients. Some organizations are structured entirely to offer intake and advice, and issues such as office location might be less relevant to them. However, these organizations may want to consider whether providing community-based or in-person intake services may help them more fully reach and serve their community. 

Organizations that specialize in work such as appeals or legislative and administrative advocacy and rely on referrals from other organizations have different access issues than a large full-service legal aid organization does. Similarly, the limits an organization places on the legal issues on which it will offer assistance limits access for individuals with legal problems that fall outside of those areas, particularly if there is no alternative to which the applicant can be referred. 

Individuals may initially contact the organization in a range of ways: In-person (walk-in); by phone; through an online platform; referral from a community partner; or off-site community-based services. While intake could also be via Facebook or social media apps, online forms, a web search page, or through a "warm referral" from a risk detector, organizations should be mindful of confidentiality concerns. Organizations should avoid the use a third party as a conduit for intake unless necessary (not merely convenient), and the client understands and formally acknowledges the risks. Ideally, a lawyer should use online forms to which the lawyer alone has access.

All aspects of an organization's intake system should be respectful of applicants' time and resources and be accessible and user-friendly. They should also facilitate prompt decision-making regarding what the organization commits to do on their behalf. That said, these concerns must be balanced against the organization's need for thoroughness in obtaining the information necessary to ensure appropriate ethical analysis of the matter (e.g., ensuring competency, avoiding conflicts, confirming scope, and the like) and to address other risk-management concerns of the organization. Organizations should evaluate how many different intake options they need, taking into account distance, public transportation availability to the site, hours of operation, and available community-based options, as well as the provision of language and disability accessibility. Ideally, intake should be available through multiple channels. Organizations should factor in the digital divide in their region to ensure that all, even those without access to a phone, the internet, broadband services, or a computer can access them without delay.

Each organization should be aware of and address the particular access issues that it encounters given its community's needs and its own delivery system, and then monitor the delivery system to ensure that all persons in need of assistance have access to them. 

Office Location. Where an organization locates its service offices and the degree to which they offer remote or community-based services will affect how people utilize its services. Offices where clients are seen should be in locations that are accessible to the communities served. Office locations should be determined in the context of the overall delivery structure of the organization. How resources are deployed - particularly in multi-county service areas, in large rural areas, and in large cities - will significantly affect office location decisions. A decision, for example, to establish large offices to facilitate staff specialization may reduce the opportunity to locate offices in or near the various communities served by the organization. Mechanisms such as centralized telephone intake, online services, outreach offices, community locations based at other organizations, or adoption of a remote service delivery model will reduce the need for physical access and may diminish the importance of the location of principal offices. There will be times, however, when applicants or clients will need to come to the office, and location and hours of operation will matter.

In locating its service offices, a legal aid organization should be sensitive to many countervailing factors. There may be many benefits to locating near courthouses and other state and local institutions before which the organization's practitioners regularly represent clients. On the other hand, it may be significantly more convenient for potential clients for the organization to be in or near the neighborhoods they serve. To the degree possible, inexpensive public transportation and free or low-cost parking should be available. 

Some organizations will have institutional needs that determine where they locate their service offices. For law school clinics, for example, proximity to the law school may be a significant factor. A legal aid organization serving a specific population might locate in a facility offering other services to the same population. 

There are obvious financial considerations to be weighed as well. These include rental or ownership costs of particular sites. Supportive local governments, bar associations, or service organizations may be willing to donate free or reduced-cost space to an organization. Cost advantages of such arrangements should be carefully weighed against the potential disadvantages of identifying the organization with particular institutions. 

Intake and office hours. Intake and office hours should be established to accommodate the needs of the communities served by the organization. Clients who are employed may not be able to take time off during regular business hours. Caretakers of small children or persons with a disability may have little time when they can be absent from the home. Available public and private transportation may determine when someone can come to an office. The hours set by staff and intake offices should accommodate such needs, and to the degree possible, the organization should offer intake and access to services outside of standard business hours and at lunch time. Online intake tools, chatbots, or other apps may make it possible for intakes to be submitted at any time of day or night. 

Physical Facilities. Service offices should provide an atmosphere that reflects respect for the communities served. Offices should provide privacy for applicants and clients and easy access to personnel. There should be a comfortable waiting space, with accommodations for people with disabilities, and, if possible, for children who accompany clients to the office. The location of a staff office should be marked clearly with an easily readable sign. The sign identifying the office should be printed in major languages spoken by the communities the organization serves and be accessible to people with disabilities. Organizations may want to include pictures or posters indicating that their space is a welcoming environment for people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, languages, LGBTQ+ identities, ages, and abilities.

Elimination of barriers for people with disabilities. A legal aid organization should be highly sensitive of the need to eliminate barriers that limit access for persons with disabilities. An organization should at a minimum comply with federal and state legal requirements regarding access to its services by persons with disabilities. The organization should recognize that many legal problems arise for individuals with a disability due to agencies', governments', or other actors' failure to meet their needs. Lack of access to transportation, public and private institutions, or other resources frequently exacerbates those problems. Failure of an organization to address its own access barriers may leave important legal issues unattended as the organization becomes another part of the problem persons with disabilities confront.

Organizations should consider the accessibility of the office location and building. This includes the route leading up to the office; for example, there should be accessible curb cuts. Offices in which clients meet practitioners should be accessible to persons in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments. If services are offered in multi-level facilities, elevators, ramps, or other accessible features must be included. Parking should accommodate persons with disabilities. Bathrooms must be accessible to persons with disabilities as well as those within the LGBTQ+ community. The organization should accommodate persons who rely on service animals or emotional support animals to assist them. Other physical features such as fire alarm systems/emergency evacuation plans and related signage should be accessible to people with disabilities so that those who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind, or have mobility impairments can access them. The organization may also consider whether environmental factors of the offices such as air quality or fragrances create access barriers.

Utilization of technology. Technology can have a significant impact on access issues. Technologically-based systems for intake, used to offer legal information, to communicate, and to provide other assistance, can significantly increase the capacity of an organization to serve large numbers of the client community. They can also directly overcome barriers to access that some encounter. Telephone intake or online intake and triage, clinics, chats, and social media outreach, for example, can significantly increase access for isolated populations and the homebound and elders. It may be the only reasonable alternative for a person who cannot take time off of work to physically go to an office. 

Organizations may build online triaging and intake systems to give applicants 24/7 access to applications and to redirect ineligible clients to other resources instead of allowing them to spend time applying for services. As new models of intake and triage emerge, organizations should become familiar with the technologies those new tools use and be in a position to evaluate the implications of using these tools with regard to client information. Organizations should ensure that clients who use those tools consent to the derivative use of their information, if any, have an option to opt out of them and use an alternative means of screening, understand how the identity of clients will be protected by those systems, and understand if the algorithms used by those tools will be distributed at-large and to what type of users, so that clients can make informed choices on how to request services. See Standard 3.10, On Effective Use of Technology, for more information about online intake and triage. 

Overcoming barriers inherent in different types of intake. The organization needs to be sensitive to the fact that restricting intake to in-person or over the telephone may create impediments for some and that telephone or online intake systems are not equally accessible by all. Some communities may have only limited access to a phone or internet. Some people have a cultural or personal preference or need for face-to-face contact. Some might not be able to work with text-based online tools, and many will not have secure and reliable access to the internet. Some persons have difficulty with complex systems with branching options and will not persevere to get the help they need. Persons who do not speak English are likely to decline to use a system that does not immediately offer interaction in their language.The organization should regularly review application processes to determine what, if any, barriers are present, who might be disproportionately impacted, and whether eligible clients are being denied services. 

The organization should be aware of cultural, linguistic, and personal issues of both clients and staff that may impede effective interaction with persons seeking its assistance. Many applicants may be anxious about contacting a legal aid organization, may be intimidated by or have had negative experiences with attorneys and other legal professionals, and may misunderstand what constitutes a legal problem or what remedies are available through the legal system. The organization's staff may need training on issues of cultural humility, cultural competence, race equity, and related issues. The organization's intake processes should be capable of responding effectively to the diverse communities it serves and of overcoming their own biases and differences in culture. Intake should also be appropriately trained to ensure effective communication with people with mental or emotional disabilities.

Intake should also have appropriate language capacity for persons with limited English proficiency and relevant cultural proficiency. Online intake systems should be available in the frequently used written languages of the communities served by the organization and should be designed and tested to maximize usability. Standard 2.3 provides further guidance on this.

The intake system should be designed to be open and responsive to persons with physical impairments that impede access or hinder communication. Intake staff should also be appropriately trained to ensure effective communication with people with mental, cognitive, or emotional disabilities or who may be neurodiverse. Such an applicant may need the support of specially trained staff to complete the process and provide the necessary facts to determine eligibility and conduct an initial analysis of the individual's legal problem.

Persons living in institutions may require specific outreach efforts to make initial contact possible. The organization may need to set up a collect call line or provide a way to seek assistance through written correspondence for people in jails, prisons, detention centers, or psychiatric facilities. 

Technology needs to be accessible to persons who have disabilities. Services offered online should have appropriate adaptive technology, so they are usable by people with different types of disabilities. For more information, see

Outreach and Publicity. Legal aid organizations should take affirmative steps to inform eligible persons of their services in a manner that encourages them to seek assistance. One of the goals of community legal education should be to publicize the nature of available legal aid and the steps an individual should take to obtain it. As the public at-large now uses social media to find information and services, organizations should become more proactive about incorporating social media, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques, and emerging platforms to reach out to specific communities. Effective outreach to elders, people who communicate in languages other than English, people with disabilities, and people living in institutions requires more than information. Organizations should establish outreach to people with disabilities and groups or organizations that work with persons with disabilities and can refer them to legal aid. The organization should consider bringing services to the people living in institutions and community members who cannot travel to the office or are better served in their communities.

Outreach should be tailored to address unique access barriers encountered by some because of their culture or special circumstances. The organization should conduct ongoing engagement with community organizations with cultural and linguistic connections to the communities the organization serves in order to facilitate establishing trust and a presence in those communities. 

Involvement of other members of the bar and other referrals. The involvement of volunteer and contract attorneys offers a valuable opportunity to provide service in areas or at times that might otherwise be difficult to serve. If a client has a disability, speaks a language other than English, identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or belongs to additional racial or cultural groups, and is referred to an outside attorney, the organization should make certain that the attorney to whom the case is referred is fully able to understand and address the client's unique needs, such as through accommodation of the client's disability, or with access to translation and interpretation services. This same courtesy should be applied when necessary to make any additional referrals for professional services needed by the client that are recommended by the organization. 

Level of Service to be Provided

Intake procedures should be designed for quick and effective action on applications for service. The process should gather pertinent facts regarding the applicant's legal problem so that the organization can make a prompt and informed decision regarding whether to accept the matter for representation or another form of assistance. Applicants for service should not be subjected to a lengthy wait or lengthy interviews (whether in-person or online through forms) to learn if the organization will assist them. The organization should communicate clearly with each applicant regarding what services, if any, it will offer.If the organization offers assistance short of legal representation, it should clearly inform the individual that it is not entering into an attorney-client relationship. 

Denials of Service

The organization should strive to preserve good will among those who are denied service. Reasons for rejecting a case should be explained clearly and promptly, and applicants who desire a review of the decision should be given immediate assistance to pursue their grievance. The organization should refer rejected applicants to other sources of assistance, if available. Such referrals should be made as quickly as possible to allow rejected applicants to seek other assistance when necessary to protect their rights.