Do You Qualify for Free Legal Assistance?

Tim Tuggey

By Tim Tuggey, Chief Legal Officer

It was a Monday night in early 2017 and seated across from me at a school cafeteria folding table was Linda, a single mom with two little children. They clamored to her, so much so she could barely tell me her story. 

Linda was having big trouble with her landlord. She had just moved to Austin about three months earlier.  She had a part-time job. The plumbing in her little one-bedroom apartment had leaked badly.  After the big cleanup, the landlord was blaming it all on her, and was seeking money. He also threatened to evict her and the kids. She claimed the bad leak was caused by the faulty plumbing. Linda was more than desperate.  

I was working at one of my first free legal clinics, with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas (VLS), in southeast Austin. My law school classmate, D’Ann Johnson, had introduced me to the clinics.  She was then serving as Austin Branch Manager for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), one of the largest pro bono legal providers in the State of Texas.  D’Ann will always be one of my heroes.

At that clinic, we lawyers were supposed to listen to each story.  Then, we were to offer the best free advice we could muster, all in fifteen-minute sittings, with each of the more than one hundred-plus people that crowded in before the two-hour clock started at 6 pm.  After the clinic, if lawyers were willing, VLS might find one or more to take on and fully defend or represent someone like Linda.  Linda and her kids qualified for legal assistance. But, there were so many people who needed help. Some qualified for legal aid. Others did not.  It made me think.  Hard.

I picked up Linda’s file. I called her the next day. Within ten days, we worked everything out with the landlord.  No more eviction.  No more back damages.  Linda settled in, found a good full time job and put her kids into school.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just encountered—and bridged—the “justice gap”.

When I first heard the term, I didn’t really know what it was or think it posed a danger. Now, I know—the “justice gap” is the immense societal and individual differences between the civil legal demands of Americans and the resources available to meet those needs. That means both millions of people and billions of dollars. Linda was just one.

That difference can also have tragic consequences, at worst. At the least, it creates stress and strain on individuals, families, businesses, the government, including the courts and the justice system. The ripple effects are vast. It’s a dangerous place to be.  Just look at Linda and her kids.

Federal Reserve Bank statistics confirm most Americans don’t have $400 cash for any kind of true emergency—including a legal eviction or foreclosure, a bank account seizure on debt collections, a surprise divorce, a surprise business dispute, not to mention a sudden illness or death in the family. The list goes on. Everyone who meets that criteria falls into this dangerous justice gap where if a legal emergency demands attention, the resources simply aren’t there to address it. 

You’re likely in the justice gap if you can’t readily put your hands on $400.00. Most legal providers and lawyers have varying criteria and a retainer to hire a lawyer will likely cost you much more than $400.00.

If you seek free legal services, most local or regional providers (and especially those that rely on some federal funding) have income and asset qualifications. Generally, most of these agencies work within poverty level guidelines and typically may require annual income of less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, as published annually by the US Dept of Health & Human Services. For a family of four in the lower 48 states, in 2019 that 200% means annual income cannot exceed about $50,000. These providers will then also conduct an asset analysis—a review of available assets (excess housing, three cars, a boat, etc.) that are not essential to the individual or family situation. For example, if you own two houses and only live in one, the other one is ‘excess’. Any such excess assets are counted against the prospective client, for eligibility purposes. The provider is assuming these excess assets can be sold or leveraged to make funds available to pay for legal help. 

Linda met all these requirements, but she and others like her then face the provider’s caseload and resource demands. These agencies and their hard-working legal teams are understaffed and overworked. It’s difficult to squeeze in new families and individual cases, which then must be subjected to a kind of triage treatment. In the final analysis, pro bono or ‘free’ lawyers (whether they are agency staff or private volunteers like me) are barely able to serve the large number of qualified individuals and families, much less those who seek assistance but do not qualify. In one recent three-month period alone, more than 11,000 applicants for legal aid in central Texas did not qualify for assistance. 

But, those very same individuals or families are hardly wealthy enough to afford legal help. They still number in the group that can’t readily access $400 for an emergency.  They fall into the justice gap.

At Justice For Me, we developed a sustaining and fair method to make legal services available to these individuals and families. The lawyers who join our team are the key players here—they make this possible. And, their clients enjoy fair and equally sustainable terms. A qualified individual or family doesn’t have to come up with a large down payment to get started on a legal emergency. We think this team approach and method of enlarging access to the justice system truly helps close the gap. 

Pro bono legal service providers like VLS and TRLA are central and essential to bridging the justice gap.  They provide services to people who can’t afford even a minimal amount of paid legal work.  We think Justice For Me adds to and expands this effort to reach even more people who might not qualify for ‘free’ services, but still really need help.  Together, we are all bridging the justice gap.

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