Legal Partnerships Bring Free Legal Aid to Health Care Settings

By Tonya Sams

The more you know the better decisions you can make for yourself.

When you go to the doctor, you probably expect to get answers about health concerns and guidance on how to best care for your body. But have you ever considered that to get to the root of a problem, you actually might need legal advice?

For instance, if your asthma is acting up, poor ventilation or mold in your rental unit could be the cause – and legal counsel can help you compel your landlord to make much-needed repairs. Or, if your son is not getting the supportive services he needs at school, a lawyer can advocate on his behalf in meetings with school administrators to set him up for success.

These issues and more are commonly addressed by attorneys who work for The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s medical-legal partnerships with MetroHealth, St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, University Hospitals, and Cleveland Clinic. Medical-legal partnerships (MLPs) help people solve legal issues that may be impacting their health or their family’s health. Together, health care providers, social workers, patients, and attorneys address the “social determinants of health” – those economic and social factors that contribute to 80% of a person’s health outcomes.

For example, utility shut-offs, evictions, and lack of money for nutritious food can all create unhealthy home environments for families.

Dedicated Legal Aid staff work in collaboration with medical providers at each hospital site, making it easy for providers to connect their patients with timely legal help.  All Legal Aid services are free of cost to income-eligible clients. Legal Aid also trains medical providers on how to recognize when their patients are experiencing civil legal issues, so they can make a seamless referral to Legal Aid staff.

Legal Aid’s mission is to solve fundamental problems for people who have low incomes and are vulnerable by providing high-quality legal services at no cost to clients. Issues commonly handled by Legal Aid attorneys include cases involving housing, domestic violence, employment, income, debt, taxes, public benefits, and more.

Legal Aid’s first medical-legal partnership with MetroHealth was founded in 2003. It was the first such program in Ohio and only the fourth in the entire nation. Today, there are 450 MLPs at medical centers in almost every state.

Recently, Legal Aid’s partnership with MetroHealth was able to help Jason (name changed to protect client privacy) when his roommate abruptly moved out and he couldn’t afford rent on his own. He applied for subsidized housing, but a decades-old criminal conviction prevented his application from being accepted.

During a visit to MetroHealth, a social worker heard about Jason’s dilemma and referred him to an on-site Legal Aid attorney.

The attorney submitted a letter to the housing agency that denied Jason’s application, requesting a hearing and documentation of the agency’s reasoning for its decision. Sometimes, criminal background checks will come across people with similar names and personal information and combine all of that information into one report. After reviewing Jason’s documentation, the attorney discovered that this is what happened in his case. She alerted the housing agency, which proceeded to give Jason a unit right away. Thanks to Legal Aid, Jason was able to avoid homelessness and move into a new, affordable apartment.

If you’re struggling with a civil legal issue that is impacting you, or your family’s health, call Legal Aid at 216-687-1900 or visit


Tonya Sams is the Development and Communications Assistant at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.