In the U.S. Constitution, the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” is promise the the law will uphold justice equally for all in our courts. The National Center for Access to Justice created the Justice Index. From the website: “Justice depends on having a fair chance to be heard, regardless of who you are, where you live, or how much money you have. At minimum, a person should be able to learn about her rights and then give effective voice to them in a neutral and nondiscriminatory, formal or informal, process that determines the facts, applies the rule of law, and enforces the result. That is Access to Justice”
But, according to the Justice Index’s numbers, we are failing our country in law and other legal areas. The way the numbers break down, there is less than one lawyer who can provide free legal aid in civil cases for every 10,000 Americans who need representation but live under the poverty line and cannot afford it.
“[These are] life and death kinds of matters, when you consider that people are being evicted from their homes, facing the loss of their homes in foreclosure or loss of their children in family court,” said David Udell, the director of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law which created the Justice Index.
You are probably aware, either from personal experience or television and movies, of the idea of having a court-appointed lawyer, or the right to counsel. However, most are not aware that this only applies to criminal cases, not civil ones. Civil law includes rent disputes, debt collections, domestic violence, child support, credit and employment issues, evictions, custody cases, and even civil rights cases. There are roughly the same amount of criminal and civil cases adjudicated every year in the United States, and while there are some organizations out there built to help provide aid, there is no burden on the legal system to bear the weight of these civil law needs.
But in addition to a dearth of lawyers, there is also a severe lack of education. The perceived high cost of filing fees prevent thousands of Americans from pursuing justice, but only 12 states have laws that require court employees to inform the public that they can waive those fees. The other states have no obligations. When you consider that almost every state (48 in total) have raised the fees of both criminal and civil courts in the last five years, this lack of available knowledge makes things more unsettling. And in some cases the lack of ability to pay court fees can keep a citizen seeking justice in an incarceration limbo.
This goes even further than lack of ability to pay. For those citizens for whom English is a second language, there are more obstacles than ever. There is no clear avenue for individuals to understand the civil law system. Almost half of all states have no interpreter requirements for staff. Many courts with no interpreter regulations make non-English speakers pay for the services of an interpreter. This is leaving people facing foreclosure or fighting domestic abuse completely without state resources of what their options might be, and the proper steps to take in pursuing a civil case.
The Justice Index breaks down into four categories: Attorney Access: Number of Attorneys for People in Poverty, Self-Representation Access: Support for People Without Lawyers, Language Access: Support for People With Limited English Proficiency, Disability Access: Support for People With Disabilities. (an obscene 45 states do not provide court employees dedicated to helping those with mental disabilities.)
From the website Pacific Standard: “funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the federal agency that supports and monitors civil legal aid in the U.S., is meager. According to a 2013 report from the Center for Law and Social Policy, LSC funding “today purchases less than half of what it did in 1980, the time when LSC funding provided what was called ‘minimum access’ or an amount that could support two lawyers for each 10,000 poor people in a geographic area.” This is the result of both inflation and budget reductions that severely hindered the agency in 1982, 1992, and 2012. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the LSC lost 10.3 percent of its legal aid staff.
While state sources supposedly made up the difference, austerity measures born from the 2008 Great Recession — when coupled with an uptick in civil actions stemming from foreclosures, consumer credit disputes, layoff disputes, and other recession-related conflicts — have left courts without adequate funding. As a result, legal aid attorneys are drowning in cases.”