Services, Advantages and Objectives
of Basic Christian Legal Aid Clinics
Although services offered can vary widely and are actually determined by each local clinic, they generally relate to ordinary problems of the poor, especially in civil matters. These often involve advice and/or services for problems concerning housing and landlords, jobs, family problems, government benefits, consumer credit, immigration, court appearances for minor offenses and brief civil hearings and the like. Handling of divorces by plaintiffs and of criminal matters are sometimes limited or excluded, although some advice and referral to other legal services clinics or lawyers for excluded services will often be available.
Legal services help to prevent injustice to the poor! Given the complexity of the legal system, most would agree that justice and effective assistance for the poor often requires access to legal counsel. Legal services can frequently (a) complement other services provided to the disadvantaged, (b) provide specific services to help people to preserve families, and also assist in avoiding or breaking loose from poverty in various other ways such as by helping to protect their jobs, their housing and other essentials, (c) be especially useful to persons in rehabilitation programs, (d) often provide unique advice and services as a ministry in a distinctly Christian way, (e) sometimes offer further assistance with spiritually related contributing causes of legal problems, and (f) frequently recommend Biblical and other peaceful means of resolving disputes such as Christian conciliation, forgiveness, arbitration, mediation and the like as more satisfying alternatives to litigation in many situations.
A big advantage of a basic advice oriented legal aid ministry clinic is that it is relatively easy to implement and has low costs. By using regular facilities and personnel already a part of ongoing ministries or programs, little or none of the fixed costs for office space, facilities, employees, paid administrators or any substantial administrative expense is incurred. Experience in other Christian legal aid clinics suggests that a majority of the indigent (including homeless persons) can be substantially helped by obtaining a lawyer’s advice at an interview and by limited further assistance. But such clinics (unless they can develop an unusually large pool of committed volunteers having a great variety of the needed skills) are not primarily designed to deal directly with litigation, more service intensive or more complex problems. The principles contained in these Guidelines do however generally apply to legal aid clinics offering fuller services where the need for these is demonstrated and where ample volunteers and/or funding for necessary staff or facilities are available.
Additional practical help, materials and services are available both to the Christian Legal Community and to the church or Christian organization in performing many of their functions and responsibilities. This includes training and practice guides, forms and procedures from the Christian Legal Society* and from some of the various sources such as national, state and local bar associations, legal aid societies and associations and public defenders. In order to multiply the limited services available through volunteer members of the Christian Legal Community, clinics should be expanded, by training and using paralegals, legal assistants and laymen to conduct certain initial interviews and to perform other permissible “lawyer type” functions, by instructing in various means of self help for those able to do so and, also where feasible, by providing community education to persons served by the sponsoring church or organization about simple solutions for common problems of the poor. Most of such “multiplication” strategies have been or are being pioneered by many of the above associations and societies.
Recruitment, Costs and Start-up
The respective roles of the parties (including whether or not or how to screen matters or persons desiring help) may of course be altered depending upon local conditions. Many churches and Christian organizations will have contacts with and be able to help recruit many Christian lawyers, law students and paralegals who are already committed to helping the poor and who may have either served on their boards or committees or have been volunteers or donors to their clinics or members of other local churches or organizations which support the sponsoring church or organization.
The run-of-the-mill costs of carrying out the respective roles of the church or local Christian organization or of the Christian Legal Community for all-volunteer advice and limited assistance clinics are ordinarily to be borne by the responsible party. In most cases, those incurred by the church or Christian organization can be carried out by its regular staff or volunteers, and those of the Christian Legal Community, by the lawyers, volunteers or other personnel involved. The out-of-pocket costs such as telephone calls, stationery, training materials, forms, postage, etc. will generally be met by each party either out of the regular operating budgets of the church or Christian organization or, in the case of the Christian Legal Community, by contributions from participating lawyers or their firms. More substantial expenses, if any, which cannot be absorbed in this manner should be budgeted for a year in advance, should be allocated between the sponsor and the Christian Legal Community and arrangements should be made for meeting these costs before the clinic begins to operate.
Larger clinics or all-volunteer clinics which employ part or full time employees such as a Coordinator (especially in the early phases) will require special fund raising efforts and allocations of the same between the Sponsor and the Christian legal aid lawyers organization.
It is recommended that a legal aid clinic should not be commenced until both parties are satisfied that applicable portions of the guidelines (including a draft of a basic Desk Reference Manual and CLS recommended volunteer training) have been or will be met. A key matter is that there are an adequate number of experienced or trained volunteers from the Christian Legal Community to produce a sustainable regular ongoing clinic for at least a year or more. Recruitment and retention of these volunteers can be one of the more challenging joint endeavors of the church or Christian organization and of the Christian Legal Community.