The Problem

Not everyone benefits from the protection of the law

Number of eligible low-income people per legal aid attorney in California 1

  1. The number of attorneys in California was pulled from the state bar’s member demographics page found at https:// This figure includes inactive members. The number of legal aid attorneys is based on the number of attorneys who work at state iolta-funded nonprofits. Not all of these attorneys are engaged in direct service. Accessed from the state bar’s website accessJustice/2015_JusticeGapFund_FactsandFigures.pdf.

  2. Figures are based on the approved 2015 federal budget and estimates about the percentage federal funding forms for overall legal aid funding.  Total legal aid funding is compared with the acquisition and maintenance costs of a B-2 bomber.

  3. See the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index Report, 2015. Factor 7.1, “People can access and afford civil justice.” Available at The dark-colored countries all rated higher than the US on factor 7.1. For an illustration of this finding see the below table, which compares expenses on legal aid as a % of GDP between selected jurisdictions: See California Commission on Access to Justice (2002), available at

  4. Low-income Americans face 2-3 legal issues per year, based on estimates from several state-wide studies. You can read a compilation of the data at There are not many data sets on the legal needs of middle-class Americans, but one study found that low-income Americans reported legal needs 30% more often than middle-class Americans. See Sandefur (2014) at Additionally, while low-income Americans have more problems per year, a higher proportion of their legal needs go unaddressed. For low-income Americans, most studies show that 4 out of 5 needs go unaddressed. For middle-income Americans, 2 or 3 needs out of 5 go unaddressed. For a summary of this, see Rhode (2001) at

A Lack of Funding

There aren’t enough attorneys because there isn’t enough funding. If you add up the total amount spent in the entire United States by all public and charitable sources, it amounts to less than the cost of one jet bomber2

Due to the lack of funding, countries like Senegal, Malawi, and Nigeria all rate better in access to civil justice than the United States. All dark colored countries on this map are ranked higher than us by the World Justice Project. 3

This Means There’s Usually No Help

When Your Property is Seized…

Alfred’s van was illegally seized by the police. He was homeless and using it as his primary shelter. They claimed he didn’t have registration, but he showed them his valid DMV registration. His van was sold at public auction, all his personal property was destroyed, and the towing company even sent him a $4,000 bill. Nobody would help him.

When Sewage Invades Your Home…

Raw sewage would back up into Michelle’s tub and toilet. She was forced to remove the feces by hand and spent months without a functioning toilet. She had to relieve herself in a bucket and also went two years without heating. Her landlord refused to fix anything. She spent months trying to get legal representation, to no avail.

When You’re Trying to Escape Abuse…

Veronica became homeless when her abusive husband had the cops arrest her. She had endured eight years of documented violence at his hands, but it didn’t matter. The police slapped her with a stay-away order, preventing her from going home, seeing her children, or even getting a change of clothes. She went to five agencies to ask for help, but was turned away at each one.

When Your Identity is Stolen…

Gloria is blind and elderly. Her niece stole her identity and went on a spending spree in Atlanta. She rented an apartment, took out a credit card, and paid utilities – all in Gloria’s name. The creditors all went after Gloria, who claimed she owed more than $10,000. She spent over two years trying to deal with the creditors and trying to find an attorney. She wasn’t successful.

There Are No Consequences

Since there’s usually no help – bad people, companies, and agencies are able to violate the law with impunity. Due to the lack of legal aid attorneys, the chances they will ever be punished for their misconduct is minuscule. The costs of defending the sporadic suit are certainly less than the money saved by violating the law. As a practical matter, the law does not protect the poor.

More Problems

Without the threat of enforcement, illegal conduct proliferates. Slumlords, abusers, creditors and more continually violate the rights of the poor. As a result, low-income Americans face about 260% more unaddressed legal problems than middle-class Americans.4

We Can Change It

If we work together, we can make the law work for everyone.

Legal aid is the only human service that faces a human adversary. By changing the behavior of adverse parties, we can ensure that fewer people will need help. Because of this, our data has shown that legal services is both the least funded and most cost-effective way to address poverty.

How We're Creating Universal Access

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