Legal Aid Society of Cleveland

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland is a legal aid society in Cleveland, Ohio established in 1905. It helped pioneer a nationwide legal aid movement whose leaders held to a simple but profound principle: that rich and poor alike are entitled to equal treatment under the law.

The first legal aid organization, the Deutscher Rechts-Schutz Verein (German Legal Aid Society), was incorporated in New York City in 1876 "to render legal aid and assistance, gratuitously, to those of German birth, who may appear worthy thereof, but who from poverty are unable to procure it." [John MacArthur Maguire. "The Lance of Justice: A Semi-Centennial History of the Legal Aid Society, 1876– 1926" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928).] Chicago's Ethical Culture Society formed the Bureau of Justice in 1888, which sought to provide legal services to all poor persons. This, according to a chronology of the history of legal services, was the first true legal aid organization.

In 1896, the New York society amended its charter, dropping the word "German" to become "The Legal Aid Society," and in 1899 it opened three branch offices. Following these pioneers, legal aid societies were organized in Boston (1900), Philadelphia (1902), and Cleveland (1905). [Arthur F. Bigelow, "Epitome of Legal Aid History in the United States, 1876– 1925," in "Legal Aid Work," John S. Bradway and Reginald Heber Smith, eds., special issue, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 124 (March 1926): 20–22.]

Now, for more than one hundred years, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has provided legal services to those unable to afford a lawyer. It is an organization with a remarkable story of progressive men and women working to better the lives of Cleveland's poor. [Carol Poh Miller. "A Passion for Justice: A History of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, 1905 – 2005" (2006)]

History of Legal Aid in Cleveland

Incorporated on May 1905, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland is the fifth oldest organization of its kind in the world. In a statement of purpose published in 1906, the founders wrote, legal aid is based on the principle that justice is the right of all men, and aims to put the rich and poor on an actual equality before the law.

Two private attorneys, Isador Grossman and Arthur D. Baldwin organized Legal Aid, which was initially funded through private donations and subscriptions. Grossman was its sole attorney from 1905 to 1912. From 1912 to 1939, Legal Aid contracted with outside law firms to provide legal services.

A focus of Legal Aid in its beginning years was working for passage of legislation aimed at unconscionable practices of businesses that preyed on low-income persons. Legal Aid's first annual report refers to a measure to regulate moneylenders who were charging poor people interest rates of 60% to 200%. A Legal Aid trustee was the principal author of a 1910 bill to create the first municipal court in Ohio. Creation of that court eventually led to the demise of the exploitive Justice of the Peace courts in the state.

Also in 1910, Legal Aid secured passage of a bill that led to creation of the world's first small claims court. The small claims court was widely imitated across the country. In 1913, Legal Aid became a charter agency of the Community Fund (now known as United Way). Under the guidance of Claude Clarke in 1919, Legal Aid saw an increase in revenue and diversity of cases, as well as the creation of beneficial relationships with the city s social welfare agencies. Towards the end of Clarke s leadership, eventually concluding in 1959, The Committee on Organization and Function urged a new plan of operation. In the early 1960's, Legal Aid stopped retaining outside lawyers and established its own staff. It became a grantee of the Office of Economic Opportunity predecessor of the Legal Services Corporation in 1966.

In 1966, under the leadership of then director and later Common Pleas Court Judge Burt Griffin, Legal Aid established five offices in low-income Cleveland neighborhoods. In 1968, C. Lyonel Jones took over as director and held that position until 2005. By 1970, some 30,000 low-income residents were being serviced by 66 Legal Aid attorneys in civil, criminal and juvenile cases.

Legal Aid has helped to eliminate racial discrimination in site selection for public housing and promotion of Cleveland police and firefighters, blocked termination of SSI and Social Security disability benefits without proper evidence, improved area jails and mental hospitals, established the right to counsel in commitment proceedings and misdemeanor cases, expanded vocational educational opportunities for Vietnam War Veterans and obtained benefits for victims of industrial air pollution. In 1977, Legal Aid prevailed in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on the rights of an extended family to live together in Moore v. City of East Cleveland.

Today, Legal Aid is led by executive director Colleen Cotter. Legal Aid annually handles over 8,500 civil cases that help more than 21,000 persons. Legal Aid's 45 attorneys now operate out of its downtown Cleveland office and three offices located in Painesville, Jefferson, and Elyria, Ohio. The organization serves over 300,000 low-income residents of five counties.


External links

* [ The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland official website]
* [ Legal Services Corporation official website]
* [ Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation official website]
* [ National Legal Aid and Defender Association official website]

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