What We Do
The State Bar’s mission of public protection includes increasing access to legal services. The agency works to maximize funding, inform policy with actionable data, and combat fraud targeting the most vulnerable in our state.
Total legal aid funds distributed in 2019
Legal aid organizations supported
Low-income Californians eligible for legal aid
As the state's largest single funder for legal aid, the State Bar distributes grants to organizations that provide free civil legal services to low-income Californians. In 2019, the State Bar helped boost legal aid funding to record levels. Other key access initiatives included the first-ever California Justice Gap Study, outreach to immigrants and other vulnerable populations, and a groundbreaking task force that studied regulatory changes to help improve access to legal services.
Maximizing legal aid grant funds
The State Bar is projected to distribute a record $97 million in legal aid funding in 2020. Two primary sources of funding are Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA), which is interest from pooled attorney bank accounts that hold nominal or short-term client funds, and the Equal Access Fund, which comes from taxpayers and court filing fees.
The agency's efforts to maximize IOLTA revenue bolstered those funds by 102 percent in 2019. This revenue depends on interest rates, which plunged in 2008 and remained low for 10 years. Under statute, banks must pay interest rates on lawyer trust accounts comparable to those paid on other similar accounts. The State Bar monitors bank remittances to ensure compliance with that requirement and in 2019 recertified the 170 institutions that hold approximately $5 billion in California IOLTA funds.
Amid the sharp economic downturn and interest rate cuts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, IOLTA revenues face another historic reversal in 2020: they are projected to decrease by more than 80 percent in two years. A smart and prudently implemented reserve policy is expected to help mitigate the impact of this significant downturn on grantees at a time when their services are needed more than ever.
As part of its efforts to maximize grant funds, the State Bar in 2019 launched a new program to recognize and promote financial institutions that voluntarily offer IOLTA rates at levels higher than those required by statute.
Highlighting community impacts of legal aid
In early 2019, the State Bar published its first statewide report highlighting the impact that California legal aid providers have had for individuals and communities living in poverty. The report highlights outcomes achieved by the nonprofit legal services providers who received State Bar grants in 2017.
Governor Gavin Newsom and the Legislature made a new funding commitment in 2019: $20 million for legal services preventing homelessness. The State Bar quickly swung into action to get those funds distributed for eviction defense, foreclosure prevention, and community redevelopment projects.
Source: Making a Difference: California Legal Aid Impact Report, January 2019 (2017 figures)
The California Justice Gap Study is the first comprehensive effort to measure and analyze the significant gap between Californians’ need for civil legal services and their ability to access legal help.
Measuring California’s justice gap
The State Bar’s California Justice Gap Study, conducted in 2019, was the first comprehensive effort to measure and analyze the significant gap between Californians’ need for civil legal services and their ability to access legal help.
The justice gap affects not just low-income households, but Californians across all income levels. The study’s recommendations to help close the California justice gap have informed the State Bar’s access objectives for 2020 and beyond.
Protecting immigrants and other vulnerable populations
The State Bar’s outreach and enforcement efforts combat legal scams that target the vulnerable, including immigrants, disaster victims, and others.
Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services
What changes in the legal profession’s regulatory and policy framework could enhance the delivery of, and access to, legal services while balancing the need to protect the public? The State Bar’s Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, with representatives from the legal profession, paraprofessionals, and the technology sector, worked throughout 2019 to examine this question.
The task force’s efforts sparked intense dialogue: its invitation for public comment on 16 regulatory reform options generated nearly 3,000 responses. The group also conducted a public hearing and five town hall meetings with local bar associations. The task force’s final report, delivered to the Board of Trustees in March 2020, lays the groundwork for future structural reforms that will improve access to legal services while maintaining public protection.