The first organized legal aid program was founded in 1876 in New York City. Just the same as today, the early aid society served low-income residents with unmet legal needs. The pioneering program was known as the German Immigrants’ Society, the predecessor to the Legal Aid Society of New York which is still in operation today. Thereafter, municipal governments, law schools, and private corporations banded together to create legal aid programs. These programs took a variety of shapes and sizes. Many were “all volunteer” coalitions, loosely organized around state and county bar associations. By 1965, there were 140 legal aid societies in operation across the United States. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was created as a central part of the War on Poverty. Funding was passed by Congress to sponsor Community Action Programs which were authorized to carve out funding for legal representation for low income persons. In its early stages, the assistance to the clients rarely involved court litigation or handling legal appeals. There was no systematic advocacy surrounding public benefits, housing or consumer protection, even though low-income residents had very frequent legal problems touching on these issues. Congress fluctuated in its support for the funding of OEO via the Community Action Programs.
Low-income residents of South Carolina had desperate needs for legal assistance. In counties throughout South Carolina, leading lawyers, judges and court administration worked in cooperation to found legal aid organizations for recruitment of volunteers, paid staff and to build support. Within a short period of time ranging from 1967 through the 1970s, there were organizations in the midlands, low country and in the upstate including Palmetto Legal Services, Neighborhood Legal Assistance, Carolina Regional Legal Services, Piedmont Legal Services, Legal Services Agency of Western Carolina and Legal Services of the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
During this period, the American Bar Association strongly supported the creation of federal funding to create comprehensive standards for legal aid providers. Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974. For the first time, there was a federal statute setting forth terms and conditions, with authority to make grants, for provision of civil legal services, including formulas based on population and access. The Legal Services Corporation was inaugurated as the primary funding source for legal aid providers. Congress in successive years allowed for funding to expand the existing network of legal services programs to rural and suburban areas of the United States that had never been included as a target population for free civil legal services. The funding injected new vitality into the existing legal aid network—allowing for critical expansion into rural counties so that all forty-six counties in South Carolina were eligible for assistance. The regional approach from the 1979s continued, however, with several legal aid programs all coexisting with their separate boards and staffs. In the late 1990s, the Legal Services Corporation promoted mergers of regional programs with the aim of consolidation and streamlining of resources. Thus, in 2002, through seasons of change, South Carolina Legal Services was born.