The Legal Aid Society of Columbus was organized in 1954...
...by a group of private lawyers who, through the Columbus Bar Association's Legal Aid Committee, were voluntarily furnishing free legal services to the poor in the community. Among the founding fathers were Robert N. Shamansky, Lyman Brownfield, and Richard R. Murphey, Jr. They recognized the inadequacy of such services and resolved to establish a formal program similar to those that had existed in some other large metropolitan centers, including Cleveland and Cincinnati, for a number of years. The first meeting of the Board of Trustees was held on May 25, 1954.
The first order of business was to obtain funding and hire a director. Through the efforts of the founding fathers, The Legal Aid Society became a United Appeal (now called United Way) agency, its sole source of support until 1959, and a continuing supporter to the present.
The Board hired Joseph R. Ralston as the first Executive Director (folks in Fairfield County will recognize his name from his subsequent long distinguished career as the Fairfield County Municipal Court Judge until his retirement). The Legal Aid Society of Columbus opened its doors and began operations on March 1, 1955 and it was located at 22 W. Gay Street.
Joseph Ralston and the second director, Richard F. Swope, spoke about those early days; Joseph Ralston said people were lined up to see him from day one. He was the sole staff attorney with one secretary. Law students from the Ohio State University College of Law and Franklin (now Capital) University Law School helped out.
OSU had an elective Legal Aid clinical program, and Franklin University required senior law students to spend one quarter assisting Legal Aid as a prerequisite to graduation. The students would interview clients, do legwork, prepare pleadings, and observe at hearings and trials. They were allowed by the court to handle some uncontested divorces with the Legal Aid attorney by their side, but the attorney would handle all the trials. Mr. Ralston and the next director Richard Swope both described an overwhelming caseload. According to Legal Aid records, the caseload averaged 1,200 per year.
The cases included divorces, bastardy, rent, bankruptcy, garnishment and attachment cases, and also some criminal cases. Many of the criminal cases were minor offenses, but some were more serious. Mr. Ralston recalled that he was appointed to one murder case that could have resulted in the death penalty, and Mr. Swope handled some serious felony cases. The Legal Aid Society did not receive payment for the criminal cases to which the attorney was appointed.
In order to handle so many cases, justice was often rendered swiftly. Judge Reynolds would hold court every Saturday morning beginning at 7:00 a.m. to hear uncontested cases en masse. If the attorney spent more than five minutes presenting the case, the Judge would take over the questioning. Both Mr. Ralston and Mr. Swope describe a smaller bar back then, when they knew all the attorneys and court personnel. Mr. Ralston said that as he walked to court, he would run into opposing counsel and settle cases all up and down the street.
The Legal Aid attorney was in court every day, and had lots of trials, including jury trials. The experience acquired was tremendous, but the work was simply too much for one attorney, despite the help of the law students and other office volunteers from the Women's Auxiliary of the Columbus Bar Association and the Red Cross. Joe Ralston stayed three years and Richard Swope stayed 16 months.
The Board decided it either had to increase the agency's size or cease to exist as an independent agency. They looked toward the Office of Public Defender of the City of Columbus for possible merger. The Office of Public Defender had been in existence since 1916. Its services were restricted to Municipal Court. Public Defender John Francis and one secretary handled a crushing caseload.
The Board calculated that by combining the two offices, a three-attorney, two- secretary office could be supported with approximately the same expenditure of money. The Board went about lining up the support of the City Council, United Appeal, the Columbus Bar Association and the Court. On May 1, 1959, the merge occurred. The Office of Public Defender was dissolved, and the Society's name was changed to The Legal Aid and Defender Society of Columbus. John Francis became its next Executive Director.
The Legal Aid office had moved briefly to the first floor of the Leveque Lincoln Tower under Richard Swope, but was now located in the City Hall Annex at 67 North Front Street in space the City provided for free. It now had two primary funding sources, United Way and the City of Columbus, and charged a $1 "registration fee" to clients who could afford it. From 1959 - 1965, cases opened per year averaged roughly 3,000. Approximately 25-30% were criminal cases. Family cases ranged from 35-50%. Economic, property and miscellaneous other cases comprised the rest of the caseload.
A Peek Into The Future
The lone attorney and secretary who staffed hottest celebrities the Legal Aid Society at the beginning could hardly have imagined the challenges and demands of serving the complex community that Columbus and central Ohio have become today. Over the last 50 years, the population of the area that the agency serves has grown from 500,000 to 1.3 million, and the diversity of the area has changed dramatically. Serving a growing non-English speaking population is a new challenge. The Society serves a financially eligible population of 183,000. It would need 36.6 attorneys to meet the "minimum access" goal established by the Legal Services Corporation 25 years ago. One of the most difficult and painful tasks the staff performs daily is turning away low-income people with serious legal problems.
Will our society ever ensure effective access to justice to all who cannot afford counsel? Discussions promoted by the Public Justice Center in Maryland and The National Legal Aid and Defender Association are exploring the recognition of a civil right to counsel ("Civil Gideon") based on state constitutions and civil rights statutes and international law. Where will this lead? Stay tuned!
The Legal Aid Society of Columbus is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We receive funding from the Legal Services Corporation and locally from the United Way of Central Ohio. State funding is from the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation. We also receive funding from The Columbus Bar Foundation and the Columbus Foundation, as well as various other grants and funds.