Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI) is a private, non-profit law firm dedicated to equal justice for all. We provide civil legal services to members of our community who have low incomes, disabilities or who are age 60 and over. Our services help our clients to become safe and self-sufficient.
CLASI was born when Collins J. Seitz and William Poole, members of the Delaware State Bar Association, established Legal Aid Society of Delaware in 1946 to provide free legal assistance to the poor. Seitz and Poole had been inspired by a speech given by Harrison Tweed, president of the New York Legal Aid Society, at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in 1945. The initial focus was on family court matters and obtaining benefits for World War II veterans under the G.I. Bill.
Legal Aid became a United Way agency in the 1950’s. Its case load shifted to mostly real property, landlord-tenant and debt cases. The number of cases handled steadily increased and in 1966, Legal Aid collaborated with Community Action of Greater Wilmington to obtain a grant from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to form Community Law Service, which focused on anti-poverty services. Community Law Service and Legal Aid operated separately until 1971, when they merged to form CLASI. In 1972, CLASI expanded its services to Kent and Sussex Counties. By 1973, CLASI had two senior attorneys and eight staff attorneys, and was funded by OEO grants, United Way, the state and the county.
In 1973, Congress created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and LSC funding replaced OEO funding. CLASI also received other federal grants and used them to create a juvenile justice program and to provide family law services. In 1977, CLASI started the Senior Citizens Legal Assistance Program (SCLAP) (the predecessor to today’s Elder Law Program) and the Developmental Disabilities (DD) Program. The governor designated CLASI as Delaware’s Protection and Advocacy System for Delawareans with developmental disabilities. Brian Hartman took charge of the DD program in 1977 and has remained its leader ever since, except for two years he spent in private practice. CLASI purchased two townhouses on Washington Street in 1977 to house its Wilmington office, and in 1979 it purchased 144 East Market Street to house the Georgetown office.
In 1982, during the Reagan administration, funding for the LSC was cut by 25% and CLASI had to institute pay cuts for its attorneys and reduce the number of attorneys from 16 to 11. CLASI’s financial picture improved in 1983 when the Delaware Supreme Court created the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, administered by the Delaware Bar Foundation.
In 1986, new federal legislation created a program called Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI). The governor appointed CLASI to represent individuals residing in mental health facilities or who had been recently discharged.
In 1990, CLASI launched its first capital campaign and raised $875,000, with which it built a Dover office and renovated its Wilmington and Georgetown offices. By 1992, CLASI employed 17 lawyers and 16 paralegals, with a total staff of 52. In 1993, the Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights (PAIR) program was implemented, followed in 1994 by the Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology Program (PAAT).
In 1995, Congress passed a set of restrictions on LSC fund recipients’ activities. The restrictions applied not only to activities funded by the LSC itself, but also those funded by other sources. As a result, CLASI decided to create a new entity, Legal Services Corporation of Delaware (LSCD), to receive LSC funds.
A major milestone was the creation in 1999 of the Combined Campaign for Justice, an annual fundraising effort by the Delaware bar to support the work of CLASI, LSCD and Delaware Volunteer Legal Services (DVLS), the three Delaware organizations that provide free legal services to low-income people.
The early 2000s saw the expansion of CLASI’S disabilities law programs to include Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS), for Traumatic Brain Injury (PATBI) and for Voter Access (PAVA). CLASI also received a grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department to create of a Fair Housing program. CLASI also began a Medical Legal Partnership program with Westside Family Healthcare, and, under the leadership of executive director Chris White, began to target the needs of low-income Delawareans for decent and affordable housing.
By 2006, CLASI employed 24 attorneys and a total staff of 58. Although CLASI’s funding and staffing levels have been adversely affected by the recession, declines in funding have happened before in CLASI’s history, and CLASI remains dedicated to providing free civil (non-criminal) legal services to eligible low-income Delawareans, and confident that it will return to prior staffing levels as the economy recovers. CLASI continues to maintain offices in New Castle, Kent and Sussex Counties and to collaborate with other non-profit agencies, state and local governments and the community to help our clients improve their lives in a meaningful and lasting way.
Since the recession began in 2008, CLASI income from IOLTA has fallen from about $1.3 million in 2007 to $100,000 in 2011. CLASI has had to reduce staffing from 24 attorneys to 15 attorneys, and from a total employee count of 58 to a total employee count of 39.