The nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which funds more than 900 legal-aid offices nationwide, says that the number of people who qualify for assistance has jumped by about 11 million since 2007, because of the recession. Roughly 51 million people are now eligible for assistance — individuals and families who earn less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, now set at $27,564 a year for a family of four.
The federal government budgeted an 11 percent increase in funding for legal aid this year. That increase, however, is more than offset by the growing demand for services and a recession-driven decline in state funding, charitable gifts and grants, which together traditionally make up half of legal service funding.
That means that legal-aid programs will turn away roughly 1 million valid cases this year, advocates say, about half the requests for assistance they'll receive.
By valid, they mean cases where the person requesting the service is qualified and has a legal dispute that an attorney could help them out with. Why is this so bad?
Legal aid offices typically handle cases involving divorces, child custody and a host of consumer issues that can include landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, applications for government benefits and battles with predatory lenders. They often represent battered women who need protection, women who are trying to obtain child support or families trying to secure insurance payments.
Each downward turn of the economy increases the need for services. During the first year of the recession in 2008, 93,000 people contacted the Cleveland agency for help. That was up 35 percent from the year before, Shakarian said. This year, the agency is on pace to get 100,000 calls for assistance. Of these, only about 10 percent will be served.
Nationally, experts estimate that 80 percent of low-income Americans who need legal help in civil cases don't receive any. That comprises "not only people who show up at the door and are turned away, which is a large number, but also those who don't even try because it's so hopeless," said Peter Edelman, who teaches poverty law at Georgetown University in Washington.
These are all examples of matters in which legal representation is either of a huge benefit or absolutely necessary, but where it's often hard to come by because there are no contingency fees to be had (and because you can count on attorneys to do free work about as much as you can count on anybody to do so.) Congress is set to increase funding for legal aid, but as the article explains, not to even the levels that existed during the Reagan administration. And of course, conservatives are opposed to increasing funding anyway:
Ted Frank, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy research center, expressed the conservative sentiment, saying, "There are better ways to help the poor than by sending in more lawyers."
Such as what? Just giving them money to hire their own lawyers?
I wrote about this very subject way back in 2006, addressing an article that profiled then-new Chief Justice John Roberts and his views on the legal system and the poor. What I had to say at the time is just as apropos today:
It's been clear to me for some time that what America's poor need more then anything is more access to the courts, and my year and a half in law school has only reinforced this notion. I'm not talking about car crash victims suing insurance companies for whiplash. Trial lawyers get paid well for that sort of thing, which is why their commercials are all over the place. I'm talking about the sort of situation the author is discussing above, where average everyday people get screwed over by beauracracies or people who can afford lawyers and access to the courts, where they can't. Certainly I'm biased by my education thus far in law, but to me there are fewer things that would make life easier on the poor then being able to turn to a lawyer when somebody is trying to screw them over. But for people like Justice Roberts, who himself has certainly never gotten an eviction notice on the door during the holidays or a threatening letter from a creditor, simply hoping that lawyers will volunteer more of their time is an adequate solution to the problem. It's not.
Surely we all know somebody who was having a hard time, who could've really used a lawyer. Illegal evictions, worker's compensation disputes, illegal firings, sex or racial discrimination in the workplace, divorces, adoptions, domestic violence...the list goes on, and these are all the kinds of problems that should be addressed by an attorney but frequently are not because the cost of an attorney is simply too much for most poor people. When poor people find themselves in these kinds of situations, that's usually just too bad for them, as they have no one to see to the vindication of their rights by law. Can you imagine a society in which it was commonplace for the poor to turn to courts, with the expectation that the would be delivered fair treatment and justice? Yeah me neither, but we could change that if we wanted to badly enough.