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Committee with a commitment to justice: Celebrating SCLAID at 100

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Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants

Eight in ten. Eight out of every ten criminal defendants across the country are indigent. Similarly, each year more than eight out of every ten civil legal needs identified by indigent Americans will go unmet. These statistics paint a telling picture: often, those who interact with our justice system do so with limited financial resources and rely on legal aid assistance. And, there’s still work to do to close these justice gaps. That’s where the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID) comes in.

Launched in 1920, SCLAID is the entity within the American Bar Association that focuses on the delivery of civil and criminal legal aid services. Its inception drew on inspiration from Reginald Heber Smith’s book Justice and the Poor, which details the barriers that indigent individuals experience in navigating justice systems without access to counsel.

This year, the Committee celebrates its 100th anniversary. Here are some of the highlights of SCLAID’s work over the past century:

  • Set policy standards for the accessibility and delivery of civil and criminal legal aid services
  • Contributed to the constitution and by-laws of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association
  • Led fights for policy changes to improve access and innovation within civil legal aid services
  • Assessed the workload of public defense offices and established model methods to follow
  • Informed campaigns to support the work of the Legal Services Corporation
  • Drafted principles for public defense delivery systems and standards for the provision of civil legal aid.

In 2020, the Committee continues to advocate for increased access and justice for low-income individuals navigating complex legal systems. The Committee is currently chaired by Theodore Howard, Pro Bono Partner at Wiley Rein LLP, and consists of members of the legal community on both the civil and criminal side of indigent legal services. Members represent nine states, and liaisons and special advisors hail from five more. The diversity in legal specialty and location allows for meaningful discussions that address the dichotomies between victims’ rights and defendants’ rights and rural and urban communities and gives opportunities to share ideas and expertise.

Those interested in learning more about the work of SCLAID should visit ambar.org/SCLAID for exciting updates on committee members (past and present) and the work that’s upcoming. You can also join the ABA in celebrating SCLAID’s 100th anniversary via social media by following along on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Finally, those inspired by the work of the Committee to address justice gaps should consider engaging in pro bono work on their own campus or in their own communities. More information about pro bono resources supported by the American Bar Association can be found here. The site includes timely information, such as pro bono and programming opportunities specific to navigating COVID-19.

Erin Bartenstein Erin Bartenstein is a second-year law student at the University of Wisconsin Law School and the Law Student Liaison on the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.