Questions and Answers about the Office of Civil Legal Aid
“Civil Legal Aid” refers to legal and law related services designed to help low income individuals, families and communities solve civil (non-criminal) legal problems that they experience. For example, a woman may be the victim of severe domestic violence. Under the laws of our state, she has the right to seek legal protection from her abuser to keep him away from her. Legal aid provides the help she needs to get this protection. Another example might be a low income person who is entitled by law to income assistance due to a disability. If the disabled individual is denied assistance by a state agency worker, she has the right to appeal the worker’s decision. Legal aid provides the help she needs to appeal the decision and get the disability benefits to which she is entitled. A third example is a low income tenant who is being wrongfully evicted. Landlords are required to get a court order before they can remove a tenant from her apartment. Legal aid provides the help that the tenant may need to defend her right to stay in the apartment and avoid homelessness. In all these cases, and many others, legal aid offers the help that low income people need to defend and assert important legal rights that often involve the most fundamental aspects of life – personal and family safety, economic security, health care and shelter.
“Civil Legal Aid” comes in many forms. It may involve providing basic information about a person’s legal rights and responsibilities. It may involve providing materials, forms and advice that will enable individuals to identify and solve their civil legal problems by themselves. Sometimes it may involve the provision of limited legal representation, such as negotiating a problem with a landlord or a mortgage company, drafting documents for an unrepresented family law litigant to present in a court proceeding, or negotiating to enable a low income family to receive free health care under a hospital’s charity care policy. In some cases legal aid may involve direct legal representation of a client on a contested civil legal matter in court or before an administrative agency hearing officer.
No. “Civil Legal Aid” is different than “public defense.” Under our constitution a person charged with a crime has a right to a defense attorney at public expense. This attorney – often referred to as a “public defender” represents the individual in the criminal proceeding brought by the government and for which the individual faces the possibility of jail time. Civil legal aid does not involve criminal proceedings. Civil legal aid attorneys are not public defenders. They are involved in providing legal assistance and representation to low income people who have civil (non-criminal) legal problems but who cannot afford to hire an attorney to help them resolve these problems.
No. The Office of Civil Legal Aid does not provide civil legal aid services directly. It is a contracting and oversight agency. The Office of Civil Legal Aid contracts for the efficient and effective delivery of timely and relevant civil legal aid services to eligible low income clients throughout the state. The statutes governing the Office of Civil Legal Aid are found RCW 2.53.005, 2.53.020, and 2.53.030.
The Office of Civil Legal Aid oversees the use of state-appropriated funds for civil legal aid services. In this oversight capacity, OCLA ensures that state-appropriated civil legal aid funding is used for the purposes for which they have been authorized, and that the services provided are delivered efficiently, effectively and consistently throughout the state. OCLA monitors the activities of state-funded legal aid providers and ensures fiscal accountability and compliance with the statute governing the use of state-appropriated civil legal aid funding. The Director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid is required to:
- Report quarterly to the Civil Legal Aid Oversight committee and the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Board on the use of state funds for legal aid
- Report biennially on the status of access to the civil justice system for low-income people eligible for state-funded legal aid
- Submit a biennial budget request.
The Office of Civil Legal Aid is a judicial branch agency. The Director is appointed by the Washington Supreme Court.
The activities of the Office of Civil Legal Aid are overseen by a bipartisan Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee (Oversight Committee) established by the Legislature in 2005. The Oversight Committee includes members appointed by the Supreme Court, the Board for Judicial Administration, the majority and minority caucuses of both the House or Representatives and the Senate, the Governor, and the Washington State Bar Association. Here the current membership of the Oversight Committee .
The Office of Civil Legal Aid contracts with the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), a statewide non-profit provider of civil legal aid services. NJP uses state-appropriated funding to:
- Operate a statewide toll-free legal advice, education and referral system called CLEAR. CLEAR attorneys and paralegals receive calls, screen for eligibility, diagnose legal problems, and provide self-help legal information and advice. In some cases CLEAR attorneys and paralegals are able to help resolve a client’s legal problem with limited assistance. In cases that are more difficult or require ongoing legal representation, clients are referred by CLEAR to local legal aid providers. CLEAR has a special service for seniors 60 years and older, and also operates a special intake line for persons in need of emergency legal help, such as survivors of domestic violence. CLEAR provides services to persons in many languages other than English. For more information about CLEAR.
- Operate a statewide self-help resources center on the Internet. This center is called WashingtonLawHelp. At Washington Law Help you can find hundreds of up to date pamphlets and materials on many issues that affect low income people. These are arranged by category of legal problems: Family Law, Consumer and Debt, Government Benefits, Aging/Elder, Immigration, Civil Rights, Housing, Domestic Violence and Anti-harassment, Health, Employment/Farm Worker Rights, Native American and Criminal. Many self-help resources are available in languages other than English, including Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Spanish, Hmong, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Somali and Vietnamese.
- Support 17 local and regional legal aid service offices throughout Washington State.
- Help support the operations of 16 local and regional volunteer attorney programs (VLP’s). Attorneys working with these programs volunteer their time to provide legal advice, brief service and representation to eligible low income clients at no charge.
- Help support the operations of 4 providers of specialized legal aid services in various parts of the state.
State-funded civil legal aid services are available to all low income citizens in Washington State. Certain non-citizens who are lawfully present in the United States may be eligible for state-funded civil legal aid services.
Persons with incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level are eligible for state-funded civil legal aid services. In certain cases, persons with incomes up to 200% of the poverty level may be eligible for state-funded legal aid services. Annual income levels by household size are listed below.
The Legislature has authorized state funding to used to support legal assistance in the following subject matter areas:
- domestic relations and family law matters
- governmental assistance and services
- health care
- housing and utilities
- social security
- mortgage foreclosures
- consumer, financial services, credit, and bankruptcy
- rights of residents of long-term care facilities
- wills, estates, and living wills
- elder abuse
- disability rights
- education, including special education
- administrative agency decisions
Yes, the Legislature has directed that state appropriated funding not be used for:
- Lobbying, including grass roots lobbying
- Class actions
- Political activities
- Contingent fee cases and other fee-generating cases
- Organizing and representation of unions or labor associations
- Representation of undocumented aliens
- Picketing, demonstrations, strikes or boycotts
- Inappropriate solicitation
9.Where do I go if I have a civil (non-criminal) legal problem and need assistance?
If you are low income, and do not live in King County
Call CLEAR Intake (toll free) 1-888-201-1014 for legal assistance, advice, information and, if you need more extensive legal services, a referral to a local legal aid provider.
If you are low income, and live in King County, legal intake and referral is coordinated through the King County 2-1-1 program. Trained legal information and referral specialists will make direct referrals of your case to the King County-based legal aid provider most appropriate for the type of legal problem that you have. To reach the King County legal information and referral system, dial 2-1-1 and tell the information and referral specialist that you need help with a civil legal problem.
If you are looking for basic information about the law, legal problems and self-help solutions on a variety of topics, go to www.WashingtonLawHelp.org. At WashingtonLawHelp you can find hundreds of up to date pamphlets and materials on many issues that affect low income people. Many self-help resources are available in languages other than English, including Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Spanish, Hmong, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Somali and Vietnamese.
James A. Bamberger, Director
Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid
1112 Quince Street SE
P.O. Box 41183
Olympia, WA 98504-1183
The Office of Civil Legal Aid has a system in place to address complaints about services provided by state-funded legal aid providers.
- If you are a client of, have been denied services from or have complaints about the services you received from the Northwest Justice Project or any other state funded civil legal aid provider, you should first address your concern to that provider. If you are not satisfied with the way your complaint has been addressed, or if you feel that the state-funded legal aid provider has wrongfully discriminated against you in either the provision of services or the decision not to provide legal services to you, you may file a complaint with the Office of Civil Legal Aid. Because funding is so limited and not everyone can be served, the Office of Civil Legal Aid will generally defer to a local provider’s decision to provide or not provide legal help unless there is reason to believe that the provider’s decision was discriminatory or involves a refusal to provide reasonable accommodations in the case of persons with disabilities.
- If you have information to believe that state funding is being used in violation of applicable state rules and requirements, you may file a complaint with the Office of Civil Legal Aid. The OCLA will investigate the matter directly and, where appropriate, take corrective action.