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A legal defense fund is a charitable organization that provides legal assistance to people who cannot otherwise afford it. Legal defense funds are typically organized around a cause, such as supporting minorities, defending animal rights, or providing assistance to low income individuals. Such organizations can be standalone groups or they may be part of a larger national or international organization.
Legal defense funds have staffs that include lawyers, paralegals, legal educators, grant writers, and other support personnel. People may be able to apply to the organization for assistance with legal bills and they can also receive legal counsel. Counsel will be provided for free or at very low cost, depending on how the fund is organized. These groups are supported by donations from other organizations and members of the public. Attorneys may also volunteer pro bono hours for a legal defense fund in the interest of public service.
These organizations tend to take on cases involving civil rights, including anything from employment discrimination to enforcement of voting rights. Legal defense funds may participate in class action lawsuits that are designed to represent large groups in the legal system and they can also be involved in individual cases. Staff can be involved in both civil and criminal cases, depending on the nature of the fund's mission.
In addition to providing assistance with ongoing legal issues, a legal defense fund may offer legal education and outreach. This includes familiarizing members of a community with their legal rights and providing people with tools they can use to defend their civil rights. In addition, such groups may work with legislators to draft and revise laws designed to outline and protect civil rights. Staff at a legal defense fund work to create a more just and fair society.
The term “legal defense fund” may also refer to a fund started to assist a specific person with legal expenses. Some individuals involved in either criminal or civil cases may attract attention and support from the community, and funds may be raised to assist with their defense. Legal fees for people defending themselves in court can become very costly very quickly if they want skilled legal services. For people who lack funds, this can become a barrier to a fair trial. A charitable fund started to provide assistance with these costs can help.
Years ago I thought I had a pretty strong reverse discrimination case against my employer at the time, a local community college. I felt like I had been terminated because I was a white male and the department was almost exclusively staffed by African-American women. They terminated my position in order to hire the daughter of the supervisor. I overheard a conversation to that effect several weeks after I was let go.
I couldn't afford to pursue a lawsuit on my own, so I found a local legal defense group that took on cases pro bono. I told them my situation and what I'd like to do legally. They called me back a week later and said they couldn't represent me. Their organization dealt more with criminal law than civil law, and they have a very limited legal defense fund budget. They used the funds to pay outside specialists and post bonds, not to pursue "for profit" civil lawsuits.
I have noticed that many of these crowd funding websites specifically forbid users from setting up legal defense funds. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I can see where someone might abuse the crowd funding privilege by seeking financial assistance he or she doesn't really need. I wouldn't want to donate to someone who was filing a civil lawsuit and was seeking millions of dollars in punitive and compensatory damages. Their attorneys are probably already working on a contingency basis anyway.
But I can also see where a defendant with limited financial assets should be allowed to pursur any means available to set up a legal defense fund, including crowd funding. If I believe in someone's innocence and I think they would benefit from better representation, then I might make a donation. I think crowd funding sites should accept these legal defense fund efforts on a case-by-case basis.
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