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Family Law Legal Services, Essay Example

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Words: 1419

Essay

Introduction

It is arguable that, generally speaking, legal service quality has traditionally depended to a large extent on the client’s financial standing. The law exists in essentially the same form for all, yet there is no escaping the reality that legal help, as with other types of professional expertise, is of better quality for those able to pay higher fees. This reality is emphasized when the economic platform of the nation shifts, as in the recent recession, and increasing numbers of litigants sought to represent themselves simply because professional legal counsel was – and is – beyond their means.  The following then explores this subject within the Los Angeles arena, noting both the evolution of family legal services in the region and how they vary in terms of what is offered to families and individuals in need.

Basic History

A survey of existing information indicates the legal aid services primarily evolved after the Industrial Revolution, and were a large governmental concern by the 1920s.  As millions immigrated to the U.S. in earlier decades, and as industrialization generated an enormous migration of mostly unskilled workers to the expanding cities, there was a new and immense population in need of legal aid and generally unable to pay for it.  A 1926 analysis from the U.S. Department of Justice sheds light on how the arising legal aid organizations were perceived in regard to federal assistance, as well as how attention to specific services and structure was a growing priority. After first affirming that such organizations exist only to assist those in actual need and unable to pay, the report notes that certain specialized forms of legal and family aid were already emerging in the large cities and spreading to smaller towns.  Of particular interest is the federal awareness of criminal case aid as unnecessary when a city already has a public defender’s office to serve this need, and Los Angeles is identified here as a case in point,  separating criminal aid from general legal aid.  In New York of the era, the public defender’s office and legal services actually merged (Smith, Bradway  79-80).

Los Angeles, in fact, has something of a distinguished presence among American cities as being a leader in initiating free legal services.  In 1915, and in contrast to most other growing cities, the city police court defender’s office was established, and with the purpose of providing free counsel to those charged with crimes and not able to pay. One lawyer and one stenographer composed the original staff, but it is interesting to note that this legal service extended beyond criminal cases, just as the staff quickly grew.  Individuals facing charges ranging from vagrancy to drug addiction could receive free legal aid through the office (Smith, Bradway  52).  While not yet centered on the needs of ordinary citizens, legal service in Los Angeles was nonetheless offered widely to those lacking funds to hire attorneys.

Interestingly, the core of legal aid growth in Los Angeles owes a great deal to John Bradway, a co-author of the 1926 report cited above. In 1929, he formed the Southern California Legal Aid Clinic Association; within a year, over 1,400 people applied for aid (LAFLA). Decade by decade, this organization would expand to address legal issues such as immigrants’ rights. In noting the growth and evolution of Los Angeles legal services, in fact,  it is important to realize that the city is unique in regard to one aspect of its population.  While most great cities are culturally diverse, Los Angeles boasts the most heterogeneous populace of any major city.  Changes in federal immigration policy contributed to a massive influx of Asians and Latin Americans since 1965, numbering in the millions (Scott, Soja  442). LAFLA, itself expanding into multiple chapters and locations, appears to have comprehended the reality that immigrants would be in particular need of free legal help.  Then, and critically, LAFLA in 1971  took over the Family Law Center at 125 W. 4th St., which had been operated by the Western Center on Law and Poverty.  Eventually merging with the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach in 2001, LAFLA now occupies offices in six Los Angeles County locations, providing free legal help on virtually any matter.

Modern Issues and Services

There can be no question that the recession of 2008 greatly increased the need for free legal help on a national level, and that Los Angeles is no exception.  With the recession came massive unemployment, and untold numbers of Los Angeles families fell into debt.  As homelessness rates rose nationally, LAFLA responded by proactively addressing the issue.  More exactly, this multifaceted agency received calls for help from families facing likely eviction due to inabilities to pay rents and mortgages.  LAFLA was then awarded over $10 million in federal funding to assist in homelessness prevention measures, and the organization’s research revealed that non-payment of rent was the primary cause of evictions following 2008 (LAFLA).  In essence, then, LAFLA’s legal services became a crucial element in saving Los Angeles families from homelessness.

LAFLA is not, however, the only legal recourse for Los Angeles individuals and families in need of representation. The Inner City Law Center (ICLC) is also focused on attending to issues of homelessness as both existing and imminent.  The Center notes that legal counsel is present in less than three percent of eviction cases, and that lack of legal counsel almost inevitably translates to eviction and, for many, homelessness.  Put another way, self-representation is typically ineffective, as well as a further burden to the civil courts. To that end, the ICLC has partnered with other municipal agencies in the Shriver Project, which offers free legal services to low-income individuals and families faced with eviction (ICLC).  Clearly, then, the combined efforts of LAFLA and the ICLC present a significant mode of address to those hurt by the recession and unable to secure counsel otherwise.

When the range of legal services offered by both organizations is examined, it is clear that LAFLA, far longer in existence and with a broader base of support, is enabled to address a wider range.  Its lawyers are versed in family law, and handle pro bono cases on matters ranging from domestic or spousal abuse to custody battles. The recent recession has also forged another field of specialization, that of consumer law; as the average person is unfamiliar with the complexity of mortgage and banking processes, LAFLA provides free counsel and/or representation in regard to predatory loan practices, unlawful liens on real property, and suspect title transfers. LAFLA also has departments engaged in employment law, immigration law, and government benefits. The size of the organization also allows for referrals to be made when different levels of expertise are required (LAFLA).

The Inner City Law Center, founded in 1980, is more centered on addressing the population and issues of its name, and was created to challenge Los Angeles slumlords’ exploitation of poor families.  The ICLC also emphasizes assistance to veterans, as well as HIV/AIDS patients, but it also serves to represent all facing hardship due to denial or inaccessibility of public benefits.  The organization then mirrors much of the efforts of LAFLA, if lacking in that agency’s larger resources.

Conclusion

It is encouraging to observe that, certainly early in the 20th century, the nation fully perceived the ethical obligation to ensure that those without means could be responsibly represented in the legal system. This was likely a need arising with the enormous economic shifts brought on by industrialization, which essentially created a new and vast lower class. In an unfortunate irony, something similar occurred when the recent recession deprived so many of their incomes, and it is admirable that Los Angeles has responded so ably to the modern crisis. In the past, the city was recognized for its early efforts to provide free legal aid and, as its population greatly expanded through immigration, so too did the presence of that aid.  Today, and through the many agencies and attorneys working with both LAFLA and the ICLC, the Los Angeles individual or family is virtually guaranteed that most critical element when facing any number of legal issues: professional counsel free of charge.

Works Cited

Inner City Law Center (ICLC).  2014, Web.  19 May 2014.  <http://www.innercitylaw.org/>

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA).  2014, Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.lafla.org/history.php>

Scott, John A., & Soja, Edward W.  The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.  Print.

Smith, Reginald H., & Bradway, John S.  Growth of Legal Aid Work in the United States.           Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, 1926.  Print.

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