A History of Legal Services in the Nation and Iowa

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 40 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.

Distinguished Legal Aid Alumni

Many well known Iowans have devoted a portion of their career working for legal aid either in Iowa or nationally. Among the more notable are Senator Tom Harkin, who started his legal career working for legal aid in Des Moines. Attorney General Tom Miller began his legal career as an attorney with Baltimore Legal Aid.

Several other public officials and judges worked for legal aid in Iowa including former State Senator Keith Kreiman, who represented Senate District 47 in southern Iowa and who worked for legal aid in Mason City and Sioux City and State Representative Kurt Swaim, who represents House District 94 in southern Iowa who worked for legal aid in Dubuque.

Many other former legal aid staff are now serving the state of Iowa as judges including Federal District Court Judge Robert Pratt, Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran, District Court Judges Marsha Bergan, and Fae Hoover-Grinde and District Associate Court Judges Richard Gleason, Jeffery Harris and Sylvia Lewis.

Other Iowans have contributed to legal services in positions of national leadership. Among them are former Congressman Neal Smith, who served as the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over legal aid funding and George Wittgraf, an attorney from Cherokee who served as President of the national Legal Services Corporation. Current Iowa Congressman, Bruce Braley, served on the Board of Directors of Iowa Legal Aid.

Working to bring Hope, Dignity and Justice is an honored tradition made possible by a career in legal aid.

Litigation Highlights

Consumer - Low-income Iowans frequently have problems related to a debt they might owe. Iowa Legal Aid has sought to enforce laws that protect consumers.

Medina v. Appanoose County (S.D. Iowa 1989); Burr v. Des Moines County (S.D. Iowa 1987);Kobliska v. Chickasaw County (S.D. Iowa 1986). These cases challenged state execution and garnishment procedures where there was no notice of exempt property or the means to raise the exemption. It resulted in administrative directives from the Iowa State Court Administrator that established procedures and forms for use in both execution and garnishment proceedings.

Housing - Housing cases make up a significant portion of Iowa Legal Aid's caseload.  Many of these cases ensure fairness in the way tenants are treated.

Notices which inform tenants of their right to cure a breach before being evicted were required by the Iowa Supreme Court in two cases brought by Iowa Legal Aid. Symonds v. Green, 493 N.W.2d 801 (Iowa 1992) (when rent is due, a landlord must give a tenant a three-day notice to cure the rent due before the lease is terminated); Liberty Manor v. Rinnels, 487 N.W.2d 324 (Iowa 1992) (when a tenant is being evicted for breach of the rental agreement, the landlord must give a notice to cure the breach before the lease is terminated) 

Individual rights - Low-income people often face very serious legal issues related to the physical or mental disabilities and Iowa Legal Aid has worked to protect them. 

The rights of persons with mental disabilities have been litigated and protected by Iowa Legal Aid attorneys in both state and federal courts. Salcido v. Woodbury County, et al, 119 F. Supp.2d 900 (N.D. Iowa 2000) (Iowa's civil commitment statute was declared unconstitutional on its face because there was no process to contest placement decisions and the board of supervisors were not neutral decision makers to decide appeals); In re Guardianship of Hedin, 528 N.W.2d 567 (Iowa 1995) (because the existing law did not meet constitutional requirements, the court determined that in all guardianship cases the court must consider whether a limited guardianship is appropriate, apply a clear and convincing standard as the burden of proof and place the burden of persuasion that a guardianship is necessary on the guardian) 

Creating access to justice - Legal Aid lawyers also have worked to make the justice system more accessible. 

Expanding the right to counsel for indigent litigants in civil cases is critical to expanding the limited availability of legal services attorneys. In re Interest of S.A.J.B., 679 N.W.2d 645 (Iowa 2004), a private termination of parental rights case, Iowa Legal Aid sought the appointment of counsel for a client whose rights were being terminated. There was no statutory right to counsel in private termination cases. The request was based on equal protection and due process grounds. The court granted the request for interlocutory appeal and on equal protection grounds determined that Iowa Legal Aid's client had the right to court appointed counsel. 

Keeping people safe in their homes - Family law cases are by far the largest category of cases handled by Iowa Legal Aid.  The vast majority unfortunately involve protecting clients and their family members from abuse.

Domestic abuse protective orders are a critical component in providing safety and protection to vulnerable clients. Iowa Legal Aid attorneys continue to litigate decisions which limit the effectiveness of the law and the protection available to clients. Some examples include: Haley v. Haley, 662 N.W.2d 375 (Iowa App. 2003) (a person can have both a criminal and a civil no contact order); Rasmussen v. Rasmussen, 686 N.W.2d 235 (Iowa App. 2004) (fifteen minutes a side was not enough time to present a domestic abuse case).

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