The Legal Aid Bureau takes great pride in the achievement of one hundred years of service in Western New York. The Bureau’s roots lie in the Charity Organization Society formed in 1877 by Buffalo’s Protestant church and establishment members steeped in a Social Gospel commitment to faith and good works. These leaders were then confronting an influx into the increasingly prosperous city of waves of immigrants with their foreign languages, religions, and cultures. Fear of social unrest mixed with a civic desire to “Americanize” the newcomers as well as a charitable impulse to improve their economic condition provided the motivation to organize a response.
Twenty-five years later, extending the concept specifically to assistance with legal matters, the Buffalo Legal Aid Bureau was established. Private subscriptions and contributions, followed a few years later by appropriations from the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie, constituted its funding. Housed in its first attorney’s law office, the Bureau originally charged twenty-five cents for a consultation and a small percentage fee, sometimes waived, for collection services. 630 cases were handled in 1912.
Through the next decades, several eminent local legal personages, many also affiliated with the University of Buffalo Law School, were associated with the evolution of the Bureau and its services. These included Chauncey J. Hamlin, John Lord O’Brien, Carlos C. Alden, and Elmer C. Miller. Later years brought Vincent E. Doyle, Jr., Nathaniel Barrell, and Rose Sconiers, its first female Executive Attorney, on board.
During World War II, upon designation by the War Department, the Bureau provided free legal services to soldiers, their dependents, and army nurses. 388 servicemen and veterans were accepted as clients in 1948.
As they were throughout society, the ‘60s and ‘70s were volatile years at the Legal Aid Bureau. It affiliated with the UB School of Law in establishing a law clinic. In response to New York’s designation of Family Court, it created its Law Guardian Unit. The Supreme Court’s Gideon decision expanding the right to counsel naturally affected both its civil and criminal workloads. The Criminal Appeals Unit arose to handle all of those in Erie County as well as certain proceedings regarding prisoners at Attica.
War on Poverty money became available through the Office of Economic Opportunity that allowed the Bureau to open neighborhood offices. The relationship with the corresponding federal agency was not an easy one and ultimately ended in a break. Neighborhood Legal Services spun off to handle consumer and housing issues for the poor.
The growth of the Legal Aid Bureau in other aspects throughout the course of a century has also been notable. Staff has increased from 3 to more than 90 employees; cases handled have increased from hundreds to over 20,000; and the budget has grown from $1,702 to over $8.5 million. Our organization is formally organized into four distinct units: Civil Legal Services, Attorneys for Children, Criminal Defense, and Appeals. It occupies some 34,000 square feet of office space on two floors of the Swan Tower at 290 Main Street.
While the amount of dollars flowing in and out has dramatically increased over the years, the need to appeal for funding remains a constant. The bureau depends upon the annual appropriations of the local, state, and federal governments, the uncertain IOLA (Interest on Lawyer Account) Fund, variable designations from United Way, and assorted contributions from organizations and the community at large. Anxiety for the next year always accompanies gratitude for the last.
It is the hope and the intention of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo to continue to provide its services to the needy of Western New York into the next hundred years with the integrity and dedication of the one hundred years past.