Legal Defense Fund Celebrates 40 years

The National Association of Social Workers Legal Defense Fund has a lot to celebrate during its 40th anniversary in 2012.

During the past four decades, the LDF has assisted members in paying legal fees in cases related to their professional practice; filed hundreds of legal briefs to support the rights of marginalized groups, such as immigrants, children and LGBT individuals; put out reference publications that help social workers navigate complex legal issues; and offered online law and ethics training and continuing education programs for social workers.

“We pride ourselves on the level of services and products we are able to provide members,” said Sherri Morgan, associate legal counsel at NASW. “We are meeting the goals outlined for the Legal Defense Fund, which is a separate entity created and supported by the association.”

The LDF is now looking at developing new activities and finding additional financial support, while continuing to evaluate existing programs. A key to raising more money to support the fund is to make members more aware of its services, Morgan said.

The LDF receives the majority of its funds from association members who check off a box to contribute to it when they renew their memberships each year. The $5 renewal contribution is critical for LDF support, although additional contributions also can be made directly to LDF or as tax deductible contributions through the NASW Foundation, which houses an education fund for the LDF.

In the future, the LDF will provide members with updates about cutting-edge legal topics, such as the legal and ethical ramifications of using electronic technologies in their practices, including Skype online video telephoning, Morgan said.

Immigration, social work education, licensing and cultural competence, LGBT marriage and family matters, and the conduct of child abuse investigations will continue to be some of the legal issues addressed across the United States, she said.

NASW created the LDF in September 1972 after a recommendation from the delegate assembly was acted on by the NASW board of directors.

A legal defense fund was needed for various pressing reasons. Some social workers were being challenged in their employment by unethical or illegal situations and conflicts in meeting their professional duty. Others needed financial aid to pay legal fees related to their support of clients’ rights, such as protecting the confidentiality of client records.

The LDF board established criteria for NASW members to apply for financial assistance to defray the costs of legal fees in cases meeting LDF board established criteria.

The LDF also provides amicus or “friend-of-the-court” briefs in cases that address social problems or advocate for the poor, minority groups, students, prison inmates and other groups seeking social justice.

The LDF defrays attorneys’ fees in cases where NASW members face legal difficulties related to the goals, objectives and standards of social work practice that NASW advocates, such as in protecting client confidentiality.

During the 2010-11 fiscal year, LDF filed 13 amicus briefs addressing issues such as supporting implementation of the federal health reform law in Florida and nationally, protecting the rights of a lesbian parent in a New Mexico child-custody case, and advocating for Hispanic immigrants’ rights in Alabama.

“The briefs we file highlight social science research,” Morgan said. “The courts really appreciate having that perspective from a credible organizational source.”

Since its creation, the LDF also has increased membership education, said Morgan, who earned a dual degree in law and social work from the University of Maryland. The fund has published 13 legal reference publications called “Law Notes,” a number of which are being updated and expanded for publication by the NASW Press.

“These publications provide members with great information, particularly when faced with daunting legal problems like a subpoena for client records or a decision of whether to act as an expert witness in a case,” Morgan said. “There had been an absence of legal information tailored specifically for the social work profession, and the publications fill that gap.”

Many social workers also use the legal references to avoid legal or regulatory mine fields in their states, Morgan said. A number of the Law Notes contain charts of 50-state references on particular legal issues and address specific legal topics, such as client confidentiality and privileged communications, subpoenas, and the legal rights of children.

For the past decade, the LDF has published the “Legal Issue of the Month,” which NASW members can read online or get through their local chapter. The “Legal Issue of the Month” offers members a quick but detailed read on some of the hottest legal issues around the nation that could affect their practice.

The LDF staff also takes responsibility for ensuring that members receive current information about the regulations issued under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

To ensure members have basic HIPAA information available, the LDF offers online HIPAA training courses at reduced rates for members.

“To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the LDF is planning to highlight LDF history, its member programs and its accomplishments throughout the 12 months of 2012, so stay tuned and watch the LDF webpage,” Morgan said.

“We will be definitely encouraging members to donate and avail themselves of these resources,” she said. “Many members say they have been pleasantly surprised by all the services the LDF offers.”


Learn more about the NASW Legal Defense Fund.