You may be wondering why you can’t find a lawyer to help you with your legal problem. First, legal aid lawyers care about your legal problem. Second, whether this makes you feel better or not, you are not alone—by far—in your inability to find a lawyer to help you. Third, some lawyer-designed and supervised options may be available to help you.
You are angry or upset or maybe frustrated that you have a legal problem in the first place. Like many people, you can’t afford to put down $2,500 as a retainer and $200 or more per hour for legal help. You may be just making ends meet or you may be unemployed. The legal problem you might have may be the reason you don’t have any money. You may feel you don’t know enough about your rights, how much money or time are needed to fix the problem, or whether you’ll win in the end. You may be thinking that if you could just get a form that you could help yourself in some significant way, even if you can’t fully resolve your legal problem with that form.
Money makes the world go around and somebody’s money allows a legal aid or pro bono program to help you for free. If you understand how someone else’s money is converted into legal help for you, then you’ll have a better understanding of why you may have been turned down when you called legal aid for help.
By and large, legal aid programs and pro bono programs operate with funding from four sources: the federal government, the state government, nonprofit foundations and private funders. Pro bono programs also operate with the donation of time and other non-money resources of lawyers.
Here in Georgia, there are two large legal aid programs. One program serves Atlanta, and the other serves the rest of Georgia. Both these programs receive a large grant from the federal government to provide free legal help. Both programs receive significantly smaller amounts from state government. These state and federal funds have been reduced because of the current financial crisis, the recession and political decisions that legal help for the poor is either not a function of the federal and/or state governments or because, if it is a function of the government, it is one that is of a lower priority.
In addition to government funding, foundations and members of the public provide funds to legal aid programs to provide free legal help. Generally, foundations will provide funding and specify who can be helped with the money they have given. You and your legal problem may not be the focus of a foundation’s generosity, so the legal aid program can’t use that pot of money to help you, but instead, must spend the money on a person who has the kind of legal problem the foundation would like to address. Because of the recession, foundations have had less money to give to legal aid programs or they have decided to give their money to another kind of program. So, in addition to it being more likely that foundation funding can’t help you, even if it could help you, the funding is shrinking and will help fewer people.
The pot of money to help provide legal help for low-income Georgians has never been anywhere near sufficient to help all those who had a legal problem. Over the years, legal aid programs had funding to help one out of every 20 people who asked for legal assistance. But that one person was able to save her home, escape from violence, or deal with a crooked contractor.
The legal aid and pro bono programs have to make very hard choices in who they can help. They are like legal emergency rooms. At the hospital, you may have had the experience that the car accident victim is rushed into the emergency room for treatment ahead of you, even though you had been waiting for two hours with a broken arm or other medical problem. Similarly, a legal aid program may accept the case of a family about to lose its home rather than accept your divorce case; or, the program may choose to help a senior citizen stay in a nursing home instead of helping you resolve a legal problem with a used car you purchased. That the legal aid program helped someone else but not you does not mean your legal problem is not important.
Our legal aid programs do need assistance in identifying resources for people whose legal problem they cannot handle. You might ask, what about pro bono attorneys? Well, somebody else’s money also makes pro bono available. First, a legal aid program needs money to run a pro bono program—to recruit lawyers to help you, train those lawyers, and match you with one of those lawyers. That money comes from the shrinking federal, state, foundation and private money the legal aid programs already use to provide direct legal help to people. Second, you can be matched with a pro bono attorney when an attorney who can handle your kind of legal problem has been identified and that particular attorney has the time and money to help you. As a side note, we have so many areas of Georgia where there are very few lawyers available.
There are federal and state government policies that control or direct how legal aid programs can operate.
As a community, our legal aid programs are making great efforts to conserve the funds they have to help people like you resolve their legal problems. They are seeking more foundation and private funding. Federal and state funding is dependent upon the voice of the taxpayer and upon the importance the public places on access to justice and access to the courts. The programs are reaching out to lawyers as never before to ask for pro bono service.
There is no one solution. There are no easy answers.
But your legal problem matters. And we do care. We became lawyers to help, not to turn a blind eye.
For access to free legal information and links to resources that may be able to help you, visit LegalAid-GA. Here, you can find forms, links to court-based help centers and a range of legal advocacy programs, and legal information.