Commentary: 603 Legal Aid is a ‘transformative change’ in accessing justice in civil cases
Access to justice in civil cases shouldn’t be a privilege for the few. (Getty Images)
(This story was updated on July 5 at 4 p.m. to correct the 603 Legal Aid call center phone number.)
As our country celebrates the anniversary of our founding this weekend with fireworks and parades, we’ll also reflect on some of the core fundamental values that bring Americans together – the pursuit of life, liberty, and justice for all.
Most of us likely know that people accused of crime have a right to counsel – public defenders represent defendants who can’t afford lawyers. But in the civil legal system – where people may contest an illegal eviction or foreclosure, or a victim of domestic violence may petition for a protective order, for example – you don’t have a right to a lawyer if you can’t afford one.
Access to justice in civil cases shouldn’t be a privilege for the few. For decades, thousands of New Hampshire residents each year benefit from the work of New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA), the Pro Bono Referral System at the New Hampshire Bar Association, and the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC), programs that work together toward a goal of providing access to justice for all.
While the civil legal aid system in New Hampshire is widely respected, we know it can be perceived as confusing both for potential clients trying to access the system and for other service providers assisting people in need, as illustrated in a recent study of civil legal needs published by the Access to Justice Commission. That’s why representatives from the three legal aid programs have been working since 2018 to create an even better way to access and deliver these civil legal services in New Hampshire. That better access model is here: 603 Legal Aid.
Pro Bono and LARC have merged to create a new gateway for civil legal aid that will streamline the process for people seeking help. 603 Legal Aid offers a single point of entry for clients and will ensure seamless, efficient connection to the appropriate provider and level of service. This new approach will maximize the available civil legal aid resources and increase efficiencies in the process that will enable us to serve a larger population.
603 Legal Aid is more than a merger – it’s a transformative change for civil legal aid in New Hampshire.
603 Legal Aid will continue to maintain an online library of resources about individuals’ rights in many types of civil cases, as well as a vibrant volunteer attorney training program and, soon, increased services by staff advocates. The new program will also partner more closely than ever before with NHLA to ensure access to justice for all in our state. 603 Legal Aid and NHLA help clients with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level and older adults, which means a family of four earning up to $53,000 per year would be eligible for civil legal aid.
Both programs work exclusively on civil legal issues, not criminal cases. They focus on civil legal cases related to clients’ basic human needs, including: evictions; foreclosures; loss of housing benefits; domestic violence; family law; public benefits, including Social Security Disability, SSI, SNAP (food stamps), unemployment, and Medicaid; consumer issues; issues facing older adults, like financial exploitation and nursing home discharges; and youth issues, including school discipline and special education for children at risk of juvenile justice involvement.
When a person contacts 603 Legal Aid, they can expect a straightforward process. After assessing financial eligibility and identifying the issue, 603 Legal Aid will determine whether the person is financially eligible and calling about an issue that civil legal aid works on. From there, 603 Legal Aid will connect the person with the appropriate information, resources, and referrals. If an individual requires representation by an advocate, 603 Legal Aid may provide direct representation, refer the client to a volunteer attorney through its pro bono program, or make a seamless connection to NHLA or other community partner.
NHLA will continue operating like a traditional law firm, assisting and representing people in all levels of court and administrative hearings, as well as advocating for changes to the laws and rules that affect low-income families.
Throughout the pandemic, civil legal aid has been there for individuals and families whose lives were turned upside down by COVID and its financial fallout. From unemployment insurance claims to evictions to remote special education services, we’ve been there for Granite Staters in this time of need. And with many COVID-related protections anticipated to end soon, civil legal aid will be just as important in the months and years ahead. The partnership between NHLA and 603 Legal Aid only strengthens that commitment and our capacity to deliver.
Civil legal aid programs receive some state and federal funding, but it’s far from adequate to meet the need. In New Hampshire, those who are able can advance the cause by donating to the NH Campaign for Legal Services, which raises private funds for 603 Legal Aid and NHLA. It’s time to make the investments we need to ensure all Granite Staters can access the American promise of justice for all.
Individuals seeking access to justice can connect with us 24/7 on our website, 603LegalAid.org, or from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily via our call center, 1-800-639-5290. To support expanded access to justice in New Hampshire, you can make a charitable gift at nh-cls.org.
603 Legal Aid is also supported by the NH Bar Foundation and the Legal Services Corporation.
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