80 percent of poor lack legal aid, study says

At least 80 percent of low-income Americans who need civil legal assistance do not receive any, in part because legal-aid offices in this country are so stretched that they routinely turn away qualified prospective clients, a new study shows.

Roughly 1 million cases per year are being rejected because legal-aid programs lack the resources to handle them, according to the study, "Documenting the Justice Gap in America," by the nonprofit Legal Services Corp. (LSC), which funds 143 legal-aid programs nationwide.

Those 1 million cases do not include the many qualified people who do not ask a legal-aid program for help; because they don't know the programs exist, they don't know that they qualify or they assume that the help is not available to them. Nor does the figure include people who received some service — including simple advice — but not the level of service that they actually need, the study found.

Nationally, on average, low-income households experienced approximately one civil legal need per year. These legal needs arise out of the everyday problems of poor people: matters relating to family law, housing, employment, government benefits or consumer problems, according to the LSC.

Left unresolved, these problems can affect and cost society much more than the expense of legal services to address them, LSC President Helaine Barnett said.

But fewer than one in five of all problems identified are addressed.