Community Legal Services, Arizona’s largest legal aid organization, has been providing legal services at no cost to clients for more than six decades. Over the years, Community Legal Services has provided hundreds of thousands of legal hours of staff and pro bono legal assistance, hundreds of attorneys, and millions of dollars of economic impact within the five county CLS service area.
In Maricopa County in the 1940s and 1950s, a small group of attorneys would gather often and discuss the need for legal assistance for those that could not afford a lawyer. This group of lawyers was concerned that the number of clients seeking out services that they could not pay for, was growing quickly. Each one of these lawyers had been assisting in their own way – taking non-paying clients after-hours, outside the office, or visiting clients in their homes. In comparing how they each were working through providing free services, they determined a uniform system to help the community more efficiently and effectively was needed.
The spouses of those attorneys would then set into motion the way these lawyers provided legal services to those individuals that were unable to pay. Many of these spouses were already assisting in their law offices. They answered phones, scheduled appointments, and arranged for document review. They were the ones to get the process of “legal aid” off the ground.
Retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert W. Pickrell remembered those early times and said, “We decided that once a week we would gather at one of our firms, and we would each see clients for whom we had previously scheduled appointments. As word got out and the demand increased, we knew we needed something even more professionally organized and structured. We knew the need was much, much greater than those we were already helping.”
Throughout the 1950s, this new system was being created and organized. Donated office space was staffed by one person at a time, and eventually became known as the Maricopa County Legal Society (MCLAS). Judge Pickrell led this organization from 1956 to 1958, and in 1966 he was elected President of the Board of Directors. He recalled being told in law school that in exchange for his license to practice law, he owed a reasonable amount of time to help those who could not afford legal services.
Through the 1960s and 70s, increased awareness on the national level of the need for no-cost legal services along with community needs assessments led to funding from sources such as the Red Feather Society (now known as the United Way), as well as federal funding from the newly formed Legal Services Corporation or (LSC). LSC was created by Congress and charged with distributing federal funds to programs around the country providing legal aid. During that time, in order to better represent its growing service area outside of Maricopa County, MCLAS changed its name to Community Legal Services. CLS now represents a five-county radius which includes Maricopa, La Paz, Yuma, Mohave and Yavapai counties.
The need for legal aid is great. Where those who are involved in criminal matters have a right to an attorney, those who find themselves involved in civil matters do not have such a right, thus requiring them to hire private representation, which they often cannot afford. In Maricopa County alone, just under 650,000 residents are living at or below the federal poverty level (FPL). Community Legal Services is able to assist eligible persons whose annual household income is at or below 125% of the FPL.
Not only does the work of CLS change the lives of individuals and families on a daily basis by preventing homelessness, protecting victims of domestic violence and more, CLS also has a positive impact on Arizona’s economy.