New Haven Legal Assistance Fights for Justice
|New Haven Legal Assistance staff. Photo courtesy of New Haven Legal Assistance
The only thing standing between many families and a descent into homelessness and poverty is trained legal representation. In courtrooms every day, the fight for basic human needs is played out in cases against landlords who have served eviction notices, employers that have withheld wages, state agencies that have denied benefits and various other civil matters. Yet unlike in criminal court, there is no constitutional right to an attorney in a civil suit. This puts people who cannot afford representation at a severe disadvantage in cases that could alter the courses of their lives.
For more than a half century, New Haven Legal Assistance has worked to balance the scales of justice by providing free legal counsel to vulnerable clients.
“We are building on the history that we’ve created, a history of being rooted in the community and putting our clients first,” says Executive Director Alexis Smith.
The legal aid office appointed Smith at the start of the year, and she takes the reins at a time when demand for legal services is high and expected to rise with the election of Donald Trump.
“We are entering an unknown territory with the new administration. Immigration issues and access to health care and public benefits are going to hit our client population hard,” Smith says.
Smith adds that there are only one-and-a-half attorneys for every 10,000 low-income residents in the state.
“The need is greater than we can ever possibly meet,” Smith says. “The volume of calls that we get is enormous.”
New Haven Legal Assistance is one of the oldest legal aid offices in the nation and has a roster of 18 attorneys, several of whom go back several decades with the organization. Recent high-profile cases include the representation of tenants living in unsafe conditions in a federally subsidized housing complex in New Haven and the securing of back wages that had been systematically withheld by a deli owner.
Clients come to New Haven Legal Assistance as walk-ins or through referrals from partner organizations. Clients with family law cases such as domestic violence are often referred by area homeless agencies and shelters, Smith says. Juvenile probation officers will refer special education and expulsions cases. And health clinics will refer patients who also have legal issues such as needing to access benefits that the state has denied. Other practice areas include child protection, immigration, and disability rights. The office also handles a small number of criminal appeals cases.
Free legal service is provided to clients who have incomes at 125% of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is just over $30,000 per year. Legal aid is also provided to clients with other barriers such as a disability, age, or discrimination.
Thousands of income-eligible clients are nevertheless turned away from the four legal aid offices around the state because there are not enough resources to serve them. To address this gap, a recent report from the Task Force to Improve Access to Legal Counsel in Civil Matters recommends state legislation that would guarantee a civil right to counsel in three specific areas: restraining orders; child custody and detained removal proceedings (deportation); and defense of residential evictions.
Beyond the legislative recommendation, Smith says the report calls attention to the need during a time of a tight state budgets.
“I’m hopeful this report will lead groundswell of support for legal aid,” Smith says.
New Haven Legal Assistance receives about 60 percent of its funding from the federal and state government. The remainder comes from interest on lawyers trust accounts, grants, and individual donations. In 2016, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven approved a three-year grant of $110,000 for general operating support.
To learn more about New Haven Legal Assistance, visit its profile on giveGreater.org.
Did you know?
A 2008 survey found that more than 70% of the low-income households in Connecticut had experienced a legal problem during the previous year, yet only 1 in 4 successfully obtained outside help because demand far exceeded the availability of services.