Brief History of The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland
For over a century, The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has been providing free legal services for people who cannot afford to hire an attorney.
Incorporated on May 10, 1905, it is the fifth-oldest legal aid society in the world.
Legal Aid was founded here to provide legal assistance to low-income persons, primarily immigrants. Two private attorneys, Isador Grossman and Arthur D. Baldwin, organized Legal Aid. Mr. Grossman was its sole attorney from 1905 to 1912. From 1912 to 1939, the Society—supported by private donations—contracted with outside law firms to provide legal services. Probate Judge Alexander Hadden served as president of the Society board until 1920 and was honorary president until 1926.
In 1913, Legal Aid became a charter agency of the Community Fund (now United Way). In the early 1960′s, the Society 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. It continues to receive funds from United Way and the Legal Services Corporation.
In its first full year of operation, Legal Aid represented 456 clients. In 1966, under the leadership of then director and later Common Pleas Court Judge Burt Griffin, the Society established five offices in low-income Cleveland neighborhoods. By 1970, some 30,000 low-income residents were being serviced by 66 Legal Aid attorneys in civil, criminal and juvenile cases. As a result of reduced funding, Legal Aid’s 34 attorneys now operate out of its downtown Cleveland office and three offices in outlying counties. Together they serve some 300,000 low-income residents of five counties. In 2003, Legal Aid handled more than 7,000 civil cases that helped more than 18,000 persons.
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. The Society’s first annual report refers to a measure to regulate moneylenders who were charging poor people interest rates of 60% to 200%.
Even before the Society was formally incorporated, its founders attempted to remedy the notorious exploitation of poor people by township justices of the peace in so called “Poor Man’s Courts.” The justices ranged freely into Cleveland, which had no court of its own. Judge Manuel Levine, a Legal Aid trustee for 32 years, was the principal author of the bill which in 1910 created 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, the Society 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
Through the years, Legal Aid has helped bring about systemic changes. It has filed numerous class actions, which resulted in changes affecting the lives of many.
Successful class action suits dealt with a variety of issues ranging from race discrimination in site selection for public housing and in hiring and promotion of Cleveland police and firefighters to termination of SSI and Social Security disability benefits for recipients without evidence of medical improvement. Other litigation brought improvements to area jails and mental hospitals and established the right to counsel in commitment proceedings and in misdemeanor cases.
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.
Economic development activities of Legal Aid helped result in formation of the Hough Area Development Corporation in the 1960′s. Legal Aid cases have won improvements in juvenile and adult detention facilities, expanded vocational education opportunities for Vietnam War Veterans denied certain GI Bill benefits and obtained benefits for victims of industrial air pollution.
Currently, Legal Aid attorneys are working to bring fairness to low-income utility customers, protection from predatory lending practices and relief for victims of fraudulent proprietary schools.