Q: What is civil legal aid?
A: Civil legal aid refers to the legal services provided at no cost to low-income Ohioans by hundreds of attorneys and paralegals throughout Ohio. These professionals work through local and regional legal aid societies, volunteer pro bono programs, and reduced-fee contracted services to help thousands of low-income people gain access to legal representation. Civil legal aid helps low-income people resolve urgent, non-criminal legal problems. For example, elderly people are protected from unlawful evictions, women and children are protected from violence in their homes, and veterans get help to receive the financial benefits they have earned and need.
Q: How are civil legal aid services delivered in Ohio?
A: A legal aid society (commonly known as a "legal aid") is a nonprofit law firm that serves a designated area of Ohio. There are five legal aid societies that, together, serve every county in Ohio. Like any law firm, each legal aid society has attorneys and support staff. Legal aid attorneys are trained in a wide range of issues facing those living in poverty and may also specialize in a particular area of the law, such as housing or domestic violence. In addition to traditional one-on-one representation, many legal aid societies have developed online resources to provide clients with advice, brief services, or to refer clients to another agency better suited to help a client with his or her problem. The legal aid system also includes a hotline that provides free legal information, advice and referral for all residents of Ohio age 60 and over. Visit www.ohiolegalservices.org to learn more about Ohio’s legal aid societies.
Q: How is civil legal aid funded in Ohio?
A: The primary source of funding for civil legal aid in Ohio is the Ohio Legal Aid Fund. The Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation (OLAF) administers this fund, which consists of interest earned on Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA), and from a filing fee surcharge on civil cases filed in municipal, county and common pleas courts. Some legal aid societies also receive grants from the federal Legal Services Corporation, which is funded by an appropriation from Congress. Legal aid societies also receive funds from other sources such as individual donors, foundations, businesses, United Way allocations, and state and local bar associations. Visit the Ohio Legal Assistance website (www.olaf.org) to learn more about IOLTA/IOTA, filing fees and the history of funding legal aid in Ohio.
Q: Why is there a need for civil legal aid?
A: The American Community Survey estimates that in 2011 more than 16 percent of the state's population lived in poverty, which means they were living with an annual income of $23,550 or less for a family of four. Further, an individual’s or family’s economic self-sufficiency requires an income of at least twice this amount. In 2011, almost 4 million Ohioans, or 35 percent of the state’s population, had incomes below this level of economic self-sufficiency. These individuals and families lack the resources to pay for a lawyer and, at the same time, are more likely to need the advice and assistance of a lawyer with problems that have been intensified by living in poverty, such as housing security, health care, food stamps or disability assistance, protection from domestic violence, and employment and income stability. Civil legal aid is often the only place where they can turn for help.
Q: How do I access civil legal aid?
A: Civil legal aid is available, to those who qualify, in every Ohio county. You may contact your closest legal aid office by calling 1-866-LAW-OHIO (1-866-529-6446) or by visiting www.ohiolegalservices.org and clicking on the question, "Do you need legal help?".
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was originally prepared by attorney Jeffrey Fortkamp and updated by E. Jane Taylor of the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation (www.olaf.org).