Alabama’s Civil Legal Aid Organizations Do Great Work for the Community

Alabama’s Civil Legal Aid Organizations Do Great Work for the CommunityUnder the Constitution, you are guaranteed the right to a defense if you are accused of a crime. Public defenders have some of the toughest jobs there are – and some of the most necessary. But they only work in criminal defense, and folks all over Alabama often find themselves in the middle of complicated legal issues handled by the civil justice system.

Enter the Alabama Access to Justice Commission. Created in 2007, the 20-member Commission “serve[s] as a coordinating entity for the legally underserved, the legal community, social service providers and the private and public sectors [by]representing the legal profession, educational administration, religious community, military, business sector, advocacy groups representing low-income Alabamians and volunteers.” The work they do is invaluable, and we wanted to talk a bit about it today.

About the programs serving lower-income Alabama residents

Statewide there are five Volunteer Lawyer Programs and one Legal Services Corporation. These agencies provide free legal services for all 67 counties. About 70% of their funding comes through federal channels, and about 25% of the population of Alabama needs these types of services. Unfortunately, 84% of legal needs are unmet.  In the last reporting year, the agencies made a dent in these civil cases by closing 16,000 cases, but there is clearly a very long way to go.

The most common civil legal matters can be broken down into several categories. The most common family law needs include:

  • Divorce
  • Custody
  • Visitation
  • Paternity
  • Child support
  • Name changes
  • Guardianship

Housing issues that you may need assistance with include:

  • Eviction
  • Foreclosure
  • Leases
  • Landlord and tenant matters

For consumer issues, civil legal services can assist with the following:

  • Garnishments
  • Smalls claims
  • Debt and debt collection
  • Bankruptcy

These civil legal aid services can help you find a lawyer, offer a self-help clinic, and connect you with legal aid organizations. You can also get court information to prepare for your court date. Mediation services also help you get information and resolve your legal matters without going to court.. You can find free information and worksheets online to help you understand the process, and to take care of paperwork ahead of time. These sheets aren’t a replacement for a lawyer, though, which is where ATJ’s work really shines.

Why doesn’t ATJ provide help for injury claims?

The thing about most civil cases (like criminal cases) is that it costs money to hire an attorney. But personal injury cases are different, because the attorneys work on contingency. What that means is that firms like ours don’t take any money upfront for the work we do. Instead, the firm covers all the costs of your case. Once we win at trial or secure a settlement award for our clients, we take our fee from that award. So our clients never pay anything to hire us (like a retainer), and they don’t have to pay as the case progresses; most other attorneys bill by the service or the hour. Because of that, anyone of any income can “afford” to hire a personal injury lawyer because it doesn’t cost them anything to do so.

And there are certain other types of work that follow a similar structure. For example, firms that handle workers’ compensation and Social Security Disability also tend to work on contingency, Further, the attorneys’ fees for those types of cases are capped.

What else do legal aid organizations do to help the community?

While most civil legal aid organizations and groups assist by providing free or low-cost services directly to people in need, they also help during times of crisis.

Disaster response

Take a storm like Hurricane Sally. It required the immediate mobilization of volunteer lawyers, mobile aid centers, and assistance for storm victims. Legal Services Alabama helped folks with housing, public benefits, utilities, FEMA appeals. Insurance claims, and more. While this is one example, civil legal aid can help locally and nationally. Lawyers can travel from across the country to offer their services during a disaster.

Policy reform

Another benefit of civil legal aid is policy reform. When these lawyers and advocates are on the ground, they see where laws and policies are lacking. They can lead the way in societal and policy change. In the past, legal aid has helped make significant policy changes  to protect health benefits for disabled children, fight predatory lending and improve working conditions. When it comes to housing, legal aid services have helped save $116 million in shelter costs. They have helped save nearly 1,000 residences from foreclosure.

Help for seniors, veterans, and military families

Our community’s most vulnerable groups are seniors, veterans, and military families. Many of these groups have fixed incomes and cannot afford legal services if something goes amiss. People 65 and older make up over 15% of the poverty-stricken community. Some of these seniors are caregivers. They are also the target of scams, abuse, and predatory lenders. Their resources are smaller, and they have already paid their dues to society. When your only source of income is social security, paying for legal services is nearly impossible.

Veterans have done more than enough for this country. When they return, they can have a challenging time re-adjusting to society. Additionally, they can face a long wait and difficult process to get the VA benefits they are entitled to. Among the most significant contributors to the veteran homelessness crisis is the lack of legal resources. With access to civil legal aid services, these vulnerable groups can have a fighting chance at a better life.

Legal help is not guaranteed in civil cases

It is important to have civil legal aid because there is no guarantee of legal representation. For criminal cases, parties have the right to counsel whether or not they can afford it. Some of the people that offer civil legal aid are private lawyers and law students. They offer their advice and assistance pro bono, meaning they do not charge you. Legal aid is vital for poverty stricken families. It helps prevent homelessness, handles domestic violence cases, helps secure health benefits, and more.

Nationwide, over 60 million people are eligible to receive civil legal funding through these programs. Unfortunately, only one million people use these services. Depending on the case, local legal aid services will vary. Some places only allow civil lawyers to handle certain case elements but not the entire issue. For other items, they can refer clients to mediators. They also work with law students and fellowship programs to get more manpower to underserved communities.

How can I help support civil legal aid services in Alabama?

Alabama residents deserve quality representation, no matter where they live or how much money they make. Civil legal aid programs and organizations provided these services, and they deserve our support.

The Alabama Access to Justice Commission provides the following links to and information  about Volunteer Lawyer Programs throughout the state which are always in need of help:

If you’re interested in limited scope representation, you can learn more here.

Finally, if you are not a lawyer but want to help, you can donate to Legal Services Alabama (LSA) or to any of the programs listed by ATJ.

Martin & Helms, P.C. is a personal injury law firm serving all of North Alabama, including Madison, Decatur, Athens, and Huntsville. You can schedule a free case review at our Decatur or Huntsville offices. Call us or complete our contact form today for help.