In Pursuit of Justice—An Assessment of the Civil Legal Needs of North Carolina
Imagine facing losing your job, your house, or custody of your children, without knowing whether you have any legal rights, or without the assistance of someone who can reliably explain the legal papers that have just been served on you. This is all too often the reality for North Carolina’s low- and moderate-income families. Indeed, for many case types in our state courts, the vast majority of litigants come to court without representation. Access to justice suffers when people do not have legal advice or representation. This has especially severe consequences for the nearly one and a half million North Carolinians living in poverty, who are likely to experience more legal problems than most people. None of this is new, and all of it has been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is new, however, is our understanding of the exact nature of the justice gap in North Carolina and which populations are most in need of services.
In 2020, in partnership with UNC Greensboro’s Center for Housing and Community Studies, the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission (EATJC) and the Equal Justice Alliance (EJA) completed the first comprehensive civil legal needs assessment in nearly two decades. The study provides a detailed examination of the legal needs of the poor in North Carolina, as well as an overview of the services available to meet those needs. One significant tool produced by the research team, and now available to all, is a county-by-county fact sheet with 11 pages of local data presented in charts and graphics that summarize the research findings specific to each county.
As a result of the pandemic, many of the gaps between needs and available services identified in this study will worsen without prompt action, as families in poverty lost whatever slim lifelines they had, and those who experienced the loss of loved ones or employment may be facing poverty anew. We also know that calls for service are increasing as people face the challenges of navigating new programs and policies intended to provide assistance. The data we have now provides a baseline from which we can continue to examine the nature of the civil justice gap we experience and measure our success in working towards narrowing it.
I encourage you to learn more about the civil legal needs in your community by exploring the story maps and 100 county socioeconomic profiles at nclegalneeds.org. This is also an opportunity for the bench and bar to partner with all justice system stakeholders to ensure we are meeting the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantee that “justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.”
I especially want to thank the members of the Steering Committee who provided hours of leadership and insight during this project, and the research team at UNCG who developed and analyzed this incredibly rich data. Together, they skillfully overcame the challenges of conducting the study during a pandemic and helped us understand how the events of the past year will impact the civil legal needs of families in North Carolina.
—Justice Anita Earls, Chair of the Legal Needs Study Steering Committee
The following is a slightly edited, brief excerpt from the Executive Summary of the study. The complete report is available online at
A large percentage of individuals and households in North Carolina cannot afford the services of a private attorney. Each year, thousands of North Carolinians must navigate one or more complex civil legal issues such as unemployment, foreclosure, or child custody without the benefit of legal advice and representation. As a result, they risk not being able to meet their basic human needs for food, shelter, safety, and healthcare.
Goal and Methodology
Primary goals of this assessment included:
- Documenting the current resources and services available to meet the civil legal needs of low-income communities.
- Gaining a more specific understanding of the gaps in availability of services and what resources are needed to address unmet legal needs.
- Identifying how legal needs and the resources available to meet them may vary among geographic, racial, gender, and other demographic factors.
- UNCG researchers obtained economic and demographic contextual data from secondary data sources, such as the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They compiled data for 2015–2019 from the NC Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC) for the number and type of civil cases by county. Eight civil legal aid providers in North Carolina provided a snapshot of their caseloads in 2019.
The UNCG team collected primary data over the course of ten months in 2020 using the following methods:
- 28 semi-structured, in-depth, one-on-one interviews with leaders in the legal aid field including managing attorneys, policy directors, program officers, executive directors, legal scholars, and frontline attorneys from agencies across the state.
- Focus groups with legal aid lawyers, staff of non-profit community service providers, and people who have been legal aid clients or who have struggled to find affordable legal help (57 total participants).
- Statewide surveys of 1,176 stakeholders and 708 potential, current, or past clients.
- Primary Findings
Legal aid and social services providers were unanimous on one point: low-income North Carolinians face a severe and growing shortfall in affordable legal resources. Over the past 20 years, some of the resources available to serve people in poverty have expanded while others have contracted—but the needs have far outpaced the resources.
- Some populations are underserved even relative to the larger population of low-income people in need of civil legal services. These populations include veterans, the elderly, people with disabilities, and Native Americans.
- The income limits imposed by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a significant source of funding for many legal aid offices, excludes middle-income clients from eligibility for assistance, despite the fact that they often cannot afford a private attorney.
- Legal aid providers are forced to turn away many eligible people with meritorious cases due to a lack of resources.
- While housing cases dominate the number of cases filed in state court, family law (particularly custody proceedings) was by far the area most often mentioned by stakeholders as an area of underserved practice. The second most cited underserved practice area was immigration.
- Funneling additional resources into more routine practice areas like expunctions and traffic law has the potential for tremendous impact on many individuals’ ability to be economically self-sufficient.
- Significant barriers make it difficult for low-income people to gain access to legal services. Researchers asked client respondents to name the greatest barriers. By far the most frequent was costs, which was identified by 91.2% of respondents.
- A lack of internet access can significantly hamper the ability of rural and low-income communities to access legal services.
- The need for legal services for low-income families is growing, and poverty drives a large percentage of this need.
In some geographic and issue areas, the gap between service need and service availability has reached a crisis stage. If a low-income individual is also a member of another marginalized group such as veterans, they are even more unlikely to obtain services. North Carolinians with incomes that narrowly surpass the limit to be eligible for legal aid are particularly underserved because they earn too little to pay for the services of a private attorney.
Interviewees noted that it is much more challenging for low-income people in rural areas to access civil legal aid for a variety of reasons. They indicated that rural populations are:
- Less likely to have access to public transport.
- Less likely to reside near a legal aid office.
- Less likely to have access to high-speed internet.
- More likely to be older and have more health issues.
- More likely to suffer from the aftereffects of a weather-related disaster.
- More likely to be generally isolated and therefore less likely to know about available services.
They also pointed out there are fewer pro bono attorneys and less locally-based philanthropic activity to support fundraising efforts in rural counties.
Costs Are Largest Barrier to Receiving Services
Clients overwhelmingly reported that the cost of seeing a lawyer is the most significant barrier to obtaining assistance with civil legal issues (see graph above). In 2018, approximately 15% of North Carolinians lived in poverty, which is disproportionate by race—affecting 23.5% of Black households and 12.1% of white households.
The percent of households receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in 2018 was 14.1%. One in five (20.7%) homeowners and 44.1% of renters were cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of income on housing-related costs. Finally, the median annual household income in North Carolina in 2018 was $53,855, or about $8,000 lower than that of the United States as a whole, with great variability between counties.
The top three most frequently mentioned barriers noted in the figure above were consistent across race, income, and level of trust in lawyers. The professionals interviewed further identified the following barriers: lack of childcare, inability to get time off work, lack of transportation, limited language and literacy, lack of internet access, health issues, lack of trust, and lack of awareness.
Low Level of Trust in Lawyers
A notable barrier that came to light in the interviews and focus groups is that members of low-income and immigrant communities often have a low level of trust in lawyers, the court system, and the legal system in general. Client survey respondents were asked to rate on a scale from 0 (no trust) to 100 (total trust) their level of trust in lawyers.
The average level of trust (mean) was 63.6. The highest trust level was seen among those with high incomes. Notably, veterans had the lowest level of trust in lawyers.
Categories of Legal Services with High Need
To assess which areas of legal representation had the highest need, UNCG researchers analyzed all data collected through interviews, focus groups, and surveys of nearly 2,000 people. The areas of high need they identified are:
Housing Issues for Owners: Housing legal services ranked at or near the top in each component of this assessment of civil legal needs in North Carolina. The most commonly identified legal issues for homeowners were foreclosure and mortgage issues, followed by home repair problems.
Housing Issues for Renters: Housing legal issues for renters were a top category of need and included general affordability issues, rent increases, threats of eviction, and tenants’ rights.
Family Legal Services: Statewide NCAOC data and data supplied by legal aid providers indicated that family legal services are in high demand. Among the surveyed issues in the category of family law, more than half of respondents indicated a great need for legal services for domestic violence and partner abuse, followed closely by child custody, child visitation, and child support issues.
Immigration and Naturalization: Legal services for immigration and naturalization also ranked high on the overall assessment of legal needs, as well as in interviews and focus groups. All subfields ranked relatively high in need, and the most significant areas of need were related to deportation, immigration court hearings, problems resulting from not having a driver’s license, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Seniors: The most prominent issues for seniors were fraud, Medicare/Medicaid issues, and powers of attorney and living wills. Guardianship and abuse of the elderly, while still high need, ranked lowest comparatively.
Healthcare: Medical-legal issues included addressing Medicaid eligibility issues and Medicaid nursing home benefits, as well as the provision of home and community-based services.
Income Maintenance: The most common legal services needs in this area were help with applying for or receiving SNAP, unemployment compensation, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
Consumer Rights: Respondents indicated the greatest needs for consumer legal programs were related to collection agency abuse, student loan debt, and creditor harassment.
Employment Legal Services: Respondents agreed there was moderate to great need for addressing employment issues related to criminal records as well as issues concerning unemployment benefits.
Civil Rights/Discrimination: More services are needed for people facing discrimination due to race or ethnicity. Related was a high need for legal services for discrimination due to criminal record or for police misconduct due to discrimination. The need was consistently high throughout all categories of civil rights cases.
Veteran/Military Benefits: Denial of veterans benefits was the greatest area of legal need indicated by respondents, while discharge status upgrade or correction was the least needed service.
Education Legal Services: The majority of respondents agreed there was moderate to great need for addressing Individual Education Program (IEP) issues, school enrollment for homeless youth, and issues of youth being turned down for special education programs. The need was consistently high throughout all categories of educational legal cases.
Disability Benefits: The majority of respondents also recognized moderate to great need for legal services for cases where disability benefits were denied, reduced, or terminated; for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claims; and for mental illness or commitment hearings.
Wills and Estates: Respondents indicated roughly equal need in the following four areas of wills and estates: estate planning, probate, household members had a problem with a will or estate of a deceased person, and unspecified legal problems with a will or estate.
How Can We Address the Identified Access to Justice Gap?
The report itself does not offer opinions on policy or other recommendations to bridge the justice gap. However, researchers asked survey respondents to identify programs and efforts in their area that are successful in the current provision of civil legal services. Respondents provided 227 write-in responses, and key themes included the emergence of new programs, strong civil legal aid providers, effective community partnerships, and improvements in court training.
Funding: Legal aid providers throughout the state receive funding from a variety of sources. Federal funds through LSC furnish the greatest amount of funding for civil legal representation for low-income people in our state but exclude many people who need services. Additional federal, state, and local government grants are important sources as well. Respondents frequently mentioned the Governor’s Crime Commission, which allocates funding to agencies under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). These funds primarily support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Additional sources that respondents identified were NC IOLTA, philanthropic foundations, individual and corporate contributions, attorneys’ fee awards, and nominal fees from clients who exceed income levels.
As discussed, the funding for services to address North Carolinians’ civil legal needs is severely inadequate. The lack of stability of funding emerged as a key issue. Many respondents also commented that restrictions on funding hampered their efforts to provide services efficiently.
Pro Bono: In conversations about resources, study participants repeatedly mentioned the private bar as an important resource available to support the provision of legal services. Some legal aid providers reported receiving significant support from private attorneys who provide pro bono services to low-income families. These volunteers take on individual and appellate cases, as well as partner with legal aid attorneys for complex civil litigation cases. In many cases, bar associations also organize pro bono projects such as phone banks to provide answers to legal questions and clinics that help low-income people prepare documents. Training and supporting pro bono attorneys can, however, be labor intensive for legal aid providers. Opinions varied regarding the efficiency of utilizing pro bono services to assist clients.
Leveraging Non-Lawyers: Civil legal aid providers struggling with limited resources told researchers they need community partners who can play supporting legal roles. Respondents identified potential allies in local social services agency staff, social workers, navigators, advocates, housing counselors, victim witness assistants, paralegals, law students, and volunteers. Respondents also indicated that working closely with other social services organizations allows attorneys to meet client needs more effectively. Community partners need training on how to identify when legal advice would be helpful and can serve in a variety of support roles. Examples include providing more training for police and court officials regarding the dynamics of domestic violence, training housing counselors to assist in eviction and foreclosure cases, and utilizing prison staff to screen for needs like record expungement. Non-lawyer advocates, with the appropriate support from lawyers, could be utilized to a greater extent to accompany clients to the courthouse to help them file pro se or represent themselves in court in some types of cases.
Partnerships within the Legal Civil Aid Community: Professionals serving low-income clients report dramatic growth in the effectiveness of their partnerships with other members of the civil legal aid community. Increasingly, they work together to support each other as well as their clients. They collaborate to educate clients and the wider community about legal issues. This interdependence sometimes also extends to the relationships between legal aid firms and the private bar.
Regarding structural change, some study participants recommended that steps be taken to reduce poverty and oppression. Ideas ranged from greater access to food and child care to increasing the minimum wage and the amount of affordable housing available. Many supported a civil right to counsel.
Short of sweeping systemic change, study participants generally felt that lack of funding is the key issue in explaining and remedying the shortfall in civil legal services. Many participants mentioned the need for far greater resources. Others advocated that funding be more flexible so that it can be used to cover nonprofit operational costs or small expenses of clients such as bus fare.
In terms of regulatory reform, several respondents mentioned Medicaid expansion. Other ideas were reinstating the earned income tax credit as an anti-poverty measure for children and reforming the unemployment insurance system in North Carolina.
The domestic violence sector gave rise to a number of policy recommendations. Among other suggestions, one practitioner urged that domestic violence protective orders be issued for longer periods and that courts take greater advantage of the statutory authority to award child and spousal support, as well as housing allowances, with protective orders. Reform of the campus sexual assault system was also mentioned.
Other policy reforms that would reduce the service gap include expansion of the property tax reduction available to disabled and elderly homeowners, liberalization of bankruptcy rules to permit restructuring of a mortgage on a primary residence, and expansion of Department of Agriculture’s rules to allow low-resource farmers to have more access to credit and conservation programs. Several informants recommended that the Self-Serve Center in Mecklenburg County be expanded to other counties. Remote court and administrative hearings and a system for remote notarizations were suggested as other ways to increase access.
Final Thoughts from Justice Earls
We do not yet know the full picture regarding the civil legal needs emerging from the pandemic.
This study relied on court data from 2019 and interviews conducted throughout 2020. We know that pandemic-related effects such as unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, housing instability and other issues will have a prolonged impact on our state, and we will continue to monitor gaps in services over the coming months and years.
You can help. There are real steps that citizens can take to help bridge the justice gap. We need attorney volunteers. Sign up at ncprobono.org. Support your community’s second responders by giving to civil legal aid organizations in North Carolina: ncequaljusticealliance.org. Finally, spread the word—tell others how civil legal aid is vital for North Carolina’s citizens and how it can solve problems early, make communities more resilient, and strengthen the economy. For more details, visit nclegalneeds.org.