Members of the Birmingham Bar Association incorporated the Legal Aid Society of Birmingham in 1954, for the purpose of serving those unable to afford legal fees and expenses.
From the faded notes of the late General Edward Friend, a Birmingham attorney whose early efforts were the impetus for the formation of the organization, we read of the “Great tradition in this country in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence” and quotes from the 40th chapter of the Magna Carta: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, justice or right.” He goes on to address the need as a “Definite and positive pressing need.” He describes the Legal Aid movement, commenced about 75 years prior in every city in America, and states that only one city with a population over 350,000 lacks a Legal Aid Society–Birmingham.
Initial funding consisted of $8,000 donated by members of the Bar, plus office furniture given by James A. Head, a local office furniture business owner. The original courthouse office was provided free by the Jefferson County Commission. Cases accepted by Legal Aid were in both criminal and civil cases, and further described as "not fee-producing." Eligibility was based on a standard “substantially the same as Jefferson Hillman Hospital.” “The basic test,” General Friend noted, was “whether any private practitioner [will] be interested in taking the case–if so, Legal Aid cannot handle.” He concludes by quoting Chief Justice of New Jersey Arthur P. Vanderbilt: “Legal Aid is the best public relations program our Bar has ever undertaken, first, because it is so manifestly unselfish, and second, because it is so obviously practical.”
The incorporation papers and bylaws from 1954 reflect the bar’s desire to take full responsibility for the Society’s operations, and the membership criteria to this day remains the same: Every member of the Birmingham Bar is also a member of the Legal Aid Society. Members of its Board of Trustees are nominated and elected to three-year terms annually, in staggered terms to preserve continuity, by the members of the Birmingham Bar. The Society’s required annual meeting is held at the end of each annual meeting of the Birmingham Bar Association, although in recent years we have not enjoyed the like of remarks by such giants as General Friend.
The Legal Aid Society of Birmingham at some point was recognized as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It was, and remains, affiliated with the Community Chest (now called United Way of Central Alabama).
As with other similar societies formed in other areas of the country, all of which were formed and continue to operate independently of each other, our local Legal Aid was formed to fill the broadening gap of legal needs for the poor which could no longer be absorbed by private lawyers working pro bono in individual cases. Prior to the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, there was no constitutionally mandated right to a lawyer. Even after that landmark decision, the right was limited to capital cases.
Prior to the time that the Birmingham Bar established its own referral system to private attorneys, Legal Aid made referrals from its office on the fifth floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse, where Mary Underwood, who later served as an assistant to Judge Elise Barclay at Family Court, served as its secretary and office manager. The courthouse location, while convenient for lawyers, was considered not an ideal location, since clients in need were afraid to come to the very place where they might be arrested or sued. In 1969, under the board presidency of William Acker (later a federal district judge), a $15,000 grant from the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) allowed the Society to add offices in Southside and Ensley, which were closer to those in need of its services. Later the administrative/municipal courts division moved to a downtown office suite in the Age-Herald Building, and the family court division moved to small offices at the Family Court in West End and in the Bessemer courthouse. In 1998, the administrative office moved to Brown-Marx Tower, the former office of its new Executive Director, Martha Jane Patton. That office removed to the Commerce Center and then the Vintage Building on Richard Arrington Jr Boulevard over the next several years. The Birmingham family court division is now housed in a suite of offices at the Jefferson County Family Court and the annex of the Bessemer Courthouse.
The bylaws require the Executive Director to be an attorney licensed to practice in the State of Alabama and the Northern District of Alabama. Executive Directors have been long in tenure, with only five persons filling this position since the inception of the organization: Richard Wade, Lewis Gwaltney, Bennett Haynes, Hampton Brown, and Martha Jane Patton, the current Executive Director. Mr. Wade’s tenure was apparently the longest, and for a time General Friend’s notes imply that he was the only full-time employee. It is believed that Mr. Wade retired for health reasons around 1970, when Attorney Douglas Arant was President of the Board of Trustees. Lewis Gwaltney was chosen as Mr. Wade's successor and served as Executive Director until his appointment as a federal magistrate in the early 1970's. For a brief period of time, the position was held temporarily by Margaret Marston, a Legal Aid attorney who ran its operations during the formation of the local Legal Services Corporation. Bennett Haynes served as Executive Director during the remaining 1970's and early 1980's, and Hampton Brown served thereafter until his resignation in 1996. During the interim between Brown and Patton, Attorneys Doug Scofield and John Lentine, Board Presidents, served as acting Executive Directors.
In the 1970's federal funds became available to local organizations furnishing legal services for indigent persons in civil cases. The federal Legal Services Corporation Act required participation on the board by representatives of client agencies, intricate reporting of expenditures, limits to attorney caseloads, and strict eligibility requirements for clients. After discussions within the Birmingham Bar Association, it was decided to form a separate agency, with Legal Aid handling only court-appointed, mostly criminal defense cases, and Legal Services handling civil cases. That distinction survives today, as Legal Services now operates a federally-funded program for civil matters and Legal Aid operates strictly as a contract public defender agency. Locally, Legal Aid and Legal Services Alabama are often confused, but there are distinct differences. Legal Aid does not accept cases directly from the public but only by court appointment. The courts where it operates make the eligibility determination. Appointments are made only in those cases for which case law or statute requires an appointed attorney if the client cannot afford a lawyer or is a minor.
The State of Alabama provides funding through its Fair Trial Tax Fund, included as a part of court costs in every case. These funds are administered by the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), which also pays vouchers from private attorneys. For many years, the Fair Trial Tax Fund has been inadequate to meet the state’s needs and must also draw from the state’s General Fund to make up the difference. Contracts are negotiated through the state Office of Indigent Defense Services, upon recommendation by the Jefferson County Indigent Defense Services Committee, a statutory body that is charged with the responsibility of providing indigent defense services.