Report: Most civil legal needs for low-income residents go unmet

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The vast majority of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the last year received inadequate or no legal help, a recent survey conducted for the Legal Services Corp. shows.

The report, “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans,” surveyed 2,000 low-income residents in the U.S. and found that roughly 71 percent of respondents experienced at least one civil legal issue in the last year. The report says 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the last year received inadequate or no legal help.

In Indiana, roughly approximately 19 percent of the population lives below the 125 percent of the federal poverty level guidelines, and American Bar Association President Linda Klein said in a recent address the Hoosier state received $7.3 million in LSC funds in 2015.

The most common civil legal issues for low-income Americans related to health, consumer and finance, rental housing, and children and custody issues. Specifically, more than half of all households surveyed with senior citizens living in them experience at least one civil problem in the last year, while 80 percent of homes of people with disabilities experienced a civil legal situation.

However, only 20 percent of low-income Americans reached out to a legal professional for help when a civil issue arose in the last year, the survey shows. That’s because residents are more inclined to reach out for help on issues that are more obviously “legal” in nature.

For example, 48 percent of respondents said they sought professional help for children and custody issues, and 39 percent sought help for problems relating to wills and estates. By contrast, only 11 percent and 8 percent of respondents, respectively, reached out to a legal professional for assistance with a health or education-related issue in the last year, the survey says.

The most common reason for not seeking professional legal help among low-income Americans was a decision to just “deal with it,” or address the problem without help. Other reasons included not knowing where to look for assistance, uncertainty as to whether the problem was legal in nature, cost concerns, time concerns and fear of pursuing legal action. However, perception of the judicial system did not seem to play a role in the decision to forgo professional assistance, the survey says.

Klein, who has been an outspoken advocate of Legal Services Corp. funding in light of proposed federal cuts to LSC, said the report “underscores how important it is to the fund support legal services across the country.” Seeking legal help through LSC can provide hope for low-income Americans, Klein said, and help them resume their normal lives after a civil legal problem,

“Without LSC, courthouse doors will be closed to low-income Americans with unmet legal needs,” she said.

Klein offered similar comments in an address to Indiana solo and small-firm attorneys earlier this month.

The full report addressing civil legal issues for low-income Americans can be read here.


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