History of Legal Aid

Legal Aid was established in 1939 as the Legal Aid Committee of the Dade County Bar Association ("DCBA") to provide legal services to impoverished residents in need who could not otherwise afford them. Then DCBA President W.L. Gray, Jr. noted in his 1940 - 1941 Annual Report that "the Legal Aid Committee was the hardest assignment of all bar committees."  He reported that “the Committee was not endowed and had no funds but had efficiently handled all of the meritorious claims coming to Legal Aid from the underprivileged.” He recommended that the new Legal Aid Society Committee prepare a proposed budget to present to the Dade Community Chest to establish sufficient funds to pay a reasonable salary and hire an attorney. In 1942, at its General Membership Luncheon meeting, DCBA members were asked to “support the Community Chest in every manner possible, particularly in view of the fact that the Community Chest was adding the Legal Aid Committee to its list of dependents.” By 1943, the DCBA Legal Aid Committee "Legal Aid" was affiliated with the Dade County Community Chest, had an annual budget of $1,200 and handled over 2,000 cases annually with the full support of the association. Legal Aid was providing legal advice in areas including Domestic Relations, Returning Veterans' Needs, and Landlord/Tenant Matters. In 1943 - 1944, the Legal Aid Office expanded its priorities to include: Financial (Small Claims, Wage Payment, Wage Claims), Domestic (Family Cases Involving Children, Custody Disputes, Paternities, Child Support and Alimony), and Guardianship (Children Able to Care for their Aging, Indigent Parents). By 1949, Legal Aid had handled thousands of cases, providing desperately needed civil legal services to the indigent in the community. 

In 1949, Dade County established the first full-time staffed Legal Aid Society, supported by Special Act of the Legislature providing $1.00 for Legal Aid from the filing fee from every case filed in a lawsuit in any Court of Record in Dade County Circuit Court.  Robert M. Haverfield was appointed to serve as Legal Aid’s first full-time Staff Attorney with a budget of $15,000.  The Legal Aid Bill soon increased to provide $1.50 for Legal Aid from the filing fee for every case filed in Dade County Court and, in 1952,  Quentin T. Eldred was the second attorney hired to serve as the full-time Legal Aid Attorney.  Eldred advocated for increased access to Legal Aid's services for the indigent stating, “Justice is not a charity work. These people have a right to justice. It is not within your power to grant it or take it away." Before the Bar Building had been erected, DCBA rented downtown office space for Legal Aid to house an attorney, receptionist, and office equipment. The number of cases doubled and Legal Aid was instrumental in collecting $87,000 in child support for clients. In 1954, Legal Aid handled 3,247 clients, and it became necessary to hire an Assistant Legal Aid Attorney. By 1958, with additional support from Dade County, the Society's revenue reached almost $38,000, and later increased to $42,000. Irene Redstone was hired to work on the increasing caseload, eventually succeeding Eldred in 1971 upon his retirement, and later becoming Legal Aid Society's first executive director. "I wear many hats," said Redstone, "at Legal Aid we handle family cases, we seek support for children, and arrange adoptions. It is a big responsibility representing our clients, our cases differ widely." 

By 1981, the need for Legal Aid intensified and the bar adopted its formal Pro Bono Plan and both offices, Pro Bono and Legal Aid, comprised the DCBA Office of Public Service. In July of 1981, the Florida Supreme Court approved implementation of Florida's IOTA Program, the first in the US. In 1982, following the creation of Florida's IOTA Program, Legal Aid received funding from The Florida Bar Foundation to provide greater access to justice and has received ongoing funding from the foundation for the last 40 years changing hundreds of thousands of lives. In 1986, Redstone was succeeded by Sharon Langer, who served as executive director of DCBA Legal Aid and the Office of Public Service from 1986 - 2014. Langer, a visionary and leader, adopted and expanded the bar’s pro bono policy as the needs of the poverty community increased, establishing invaluable partnerships with the Courts ("Put Something Back" and "Self Help"), and agencies such as the Guardian ad Litem Program and  DCF.  In 1991, Langer hired Karen Josefsberg Ladis as Pro Bono Coordinator to launch Put Something Back and further champion the critical need for expanded pro bono legal services creating numerous projects and partnerships for the next 25 years with Habitat for Humanity, Greater Miami Jewish Federation Attorney's Division, the U.S. Attorney's, State Attorney's, County Attorney's and Public Defender's Offices, The US Bankruptcy Courts, law firms, law schools, and voluntary bar association initiatives such as SMKBA's Hurricane Relief Project, “FACDL's Third Degree Felony Project” which raised critical funds for Legal Aid, the Bankruptcy Bar Association Pro Bono Project, and multiple Disaster Relief Projects.  Legal Aid applied for multiple grants from The Florida Bar Foundation and others, increasing revenues and growing the Society over the next few decades. "The demand for legal services has never been greater," said Sharon Langer, "due to the continued economic challenges here in Miami-Dade County."  Click Here to Read More.