Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The Civil Justice Gap
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees all Americans a right to counsel in criminal cases. However this basic right is not extended to those persons who need representation in civil cases, even those in which the basic needs of food, shelter, health, safety, or child custody are at stake.
According to Tort Deform, between 80% of low-income persons and 40-60% of middle-income persons cannot afford legal representation and many face civic legal crises such as eviction or custody cases at a serious disadvantage in spite of the merits of their case. As a result, those without adequate counsel receive less favorable (and often devastating) outcomes dramatically more often than those with counsel, regularly losing cases that they should be winning.
The Legal Services Corp. (LSC)the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation through its affiliated Legal Aid offices and who is facing funding shortages and laying off staff, has to turn away roughly 50% of those in need of legal representation.
New legislation, called The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009, will increase funding to that which will provide the minimum level of access to legal aid in every county for the Congressionally-established LSC. Adjusted for inflation, this level would be $750 million in 2009 dollars in order to be at the minimum access standard when it was authorized in 1981. Funding has been slashed since 1995 and is currently at a woefully inadequate $390 million.
The bill also lifts many of the restrictions currently placed on legal tools that LSC-funded attorneys can use to represent their clients including the prohibition on collecting attorney fees and the ability to bring class actions grounded in existing law.
Thanks to senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, both D-Mass.; Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both D-Md.; Dick Durbin D-Ill.; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore who introduced the bill.
At a time when the poor and vulnerable are fighting to keep their jobs, homes, and provide basic necessities, it is crucial for the government to close the justice gap by providing the right to counsel in important civil matters. This proposed reauthorization and budget increase from $390 million to the minimum level of $750 million will do a lot to ensure that justice is accessible to all.
Also See:Civil Access to Justice