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The Need for Pro Bono Legal Services

In the United States, many people cannot afford to hire a lawyer to address their critical legal needs. Legal aid provides the necessary resources to resolve legal issues such as consumer issues, health care, housing, and income maintenance for low-income Americans [1]. Even before the pandemic, the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States, found that 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help, as of 2017 [2]. With the demand for legal aid unmet, the justice gap poses life-altering consequences for the economically disadvantaged.

During COVID, the demand for legal services by the low-income population increased. In the post-COVID era, the increase in demand for pro bono legal assistance has remained a persistent lingering effect of the global health crisis. Nearly 53.7 million people qualified at some point in 2021 for legal aid from legal services organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a publicly funded nonprofit that seeks to ensure equal justice by providing civil legal assistance to those who cannot afford it [3]. In order to qualify for LSC’s grantees’ services, applicants must fall under the LSC services threshold (household income at or below 125% of the poverty line: $17,500 for an individual and $34,500 for a family of four) for the entire year. [3]

LSC-funded programs were able to deliver legal help for a total of 975,000 problems in 2022, but the demand for effective legal aid exceeds the limited resources available [1]. In 2022, an estimated total of 92% of civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal assistance [1]. As the pandemic widened the justice gap, half of eligible clients were denied legal aid due to limited resources [1].

Despite a slight increase in LSC’s budget in 2022, the heightened demand for legal assistance requires additional funding to directly address the justice gap. Since the number of applicants who seek legal aid is expected to increase, LSC has asked Congress for an appropriation of $1.5 billion in its FY 2024 budget request [4]. LSC’s current budget of $560 million is measurably less than the peak in 1980, when the budget was the equivalent of more than $900 million in today’s money [4]. Although non-LSC funding has gradually increased, the total funding still has not reached the level required to address the increase in demand for legal services and the population of eligible Americans for aid.

While advocates continue to appeal for increased funding for legal services, they also seek other avenues to bridge this gap. The Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) project of Pro Bono Institute (PBI), the Law Firm Pro Bono Project® of PBI, LSC, and others have worked to grow pro bono legal services. These efforts have led to gains in pro bono participation. Although these gains are important, they are currently insufficient to address the unprecedented demand for low-cost legal services. We will need much more societal progress to work toward a future where access to justice is universally accessible.

For more information on how to support access to justice initiatives to reduce the justice gap, or for assistance on starting a pro bono program, contact CPBO.