Iowa Legal Aid grew out of a need to provide high quality legal services to low-income Iowans. Iowa Legal Aid is part of a nationwide institution dedicated to providing legal assistance to low-income individuals, as well as to others including elderly Iowans, persons who are handicapped, or those living in an institution.
Free legal services for low-income people unable to afford a private attorney actually began in the 19th century through the pioneering efforts of volunteer lawyers and private charities. By 1922, there were 33 legal aid offices in the United States. The vast majority were totally dependent on local charitable donations.
Legal Aid programs in Iowa date back to 1951, when the Legal Aid Society of Polk County was founded through the efforts of the community foundation, the local bar association and Drake University to provide services to low-income residents of Polk County.
In 1965, Congress passed an act establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In Iowa, four new legal aid societies in addition to the existing Polk County program were organized under OEO auspices. They were located in Dubuque, Iowa City, Council Bluffs-Omaha and Waterloo. Each office, like the Legal Aid Society of Polk County, was restricted to representing low-income people who resided in the county where the office was located.
Both in Iowa and at the national level, it became increasingly evident that a structural change in legal services would be needed if the poor were truly to have equal access to justice. As a result, the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association encouraged Congress to establish an independent, national Legal Services Corporation.
The Legal Services Corporation
In 1974, Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act (P.L. 93-355). At the federal level, the passage of this law removed legal services from OEO and placed it in the care of an independent, federal corporation modeled on COMSAT, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other similar quasi-independent federal agencies.
The Legal Services Corporation is headquartered in Washington, D.C. It is governed by an 11-member Board of Directors whose members serve staggered terms, are nominated by the President of the United States and are confirmed by the Senate. LSC receives annual appropriations from Congress.
The 1974 legislation sets forth the Corporation’s statutory responsibility as being to support “high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.” That mandate is founded on the congressional judgment that “equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” must be provided to all individuals, regardless of their financial status.
The strength of the national Corporation is said to lie in these fundamental principles of the Act:
partisan political considerations have no place in a program designed to ensure high quality legal assistance to the poor;
a corporate organization is best designed to bring creative energies to bear on the problem of equalizing the access of poor people to the legal system; and
every legal services program should be carefully evaluated to ensure that it is providing the most effective and efficient service possible.
Iowa Legal Aid
In February 1977, the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa (now known as Iowa Legal Aid) was created through the merger of four existing separate legal services organizations located in Dubuque, Waterloo, Iowa City and Council Bluffs. During the period of 1977 to 1979, new offices were opened in Sioux City, Des Moines (serving south central Iowa), Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Ottumwa, Spencer, Creston, Fort Dodge and Decorah. For the first time, low-income Iowans in all corners of the state had access to a legal services office.
An approximate 30% funding decrease in 1981 caused the closure of Legal Services Corporation of Iowa offices in Creston, Burlington, Decorah, Fort Dodge and Spencer. These reductions forced further consolidation of services and staff reductions.
The election of the 104th Congress in 1994 brought additional challenges to the Legal Services Corporation. Substantial reductions in funding and significant new restrictions were adopted. These changes, however, brought about additional partnerships at the state level. Beginning in 1996, Iowa’s General Assembly appropriated funds for Iowa’s federally-funded Legal Services programs. The Iowa State Bar Association and individual lawyers have expanded their support as well. Many other groups have come forward to address the important task of providing access to justice for Iowa’s most vulnerable residents.
On January 1, 2003, the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa and the Legal Aid Society of Polk County merged to form Iowa Legal Aid. The merger was part of a nationwide movement initiated by the Legal Services Corporation which required consolidation of states' legal aid programs in order to provide more effective, efficient services. The new entity, Iowa Legal Aid, provides services to low-income Iowans in all 99 counties of the state.
Iowa Legal Aid, as the preeminent provider of civil legal assistance to low-income people, continues to receive wide support. The Iowa State Bar Association, local bar organizations, the low-income community and the population generally support the services Iowa Legal Aid provides. The dedication of all employees is instrumental to this community support. Iowa Legal Aid employees are expected to provide high quality representation to as many low-income clients with legal problems as possible.
Iowa Legal Aid and Iowa’s Legal Community
Iowa Legal Aid works closely with the Iowa State Bar Association and other lawyers in Iowa to advance the cause of equal justice under law. The Iowa State Bar Association has been a longtime supporter of Iowa Legal Aid. Iowa Legal Aid staff are active participants in bar activities throughout the state.
Iowa lawyers volunteer their time through Volunteer Lawyers Projects. In 2011, over $2 million worth of donated services was provided by Iowa lawyers. The following quote from a client served by a volunteer lawyer exemplifies the impact of these volunteer services:
I have gone through terrible troubles and there didn’t seem to be any hope. My husband of almost 49 years passed away with cancer. I was left with huge financial burdens. I lost my home that we lived in all our married life. If it wouldn’t be for Legal Aid and the volunteer attorney, I don’t know where I would be today. I have the most respect for the volunteer attorney who helped me and I’ll never forget all he’s done.
Track Record of Accomplishments as an Organization
For 35 years, Iowa Legal Aid has provided critical legal assistance to low-income Iowans who have nowhere else to turn. Typical clients of Iowa Legal Aid include:
A victim of domestic violence who, along with her children, is in need of the intervention of the courts in order to ensure her safety, maintain shelter, obtain support and the ability to move on from a violent past to a productive future.
A family is assisted in applying for the Earned Income Credit which helps maintain family income so that housing is maintained and food and basic necessities are available for all family members.
A veteran, who has been unable to work as a result of problems encountered in the service of his country, needs help in establishing eligibility for veteran’s assistance which will provide much needed income for his family.