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Bar News - December 17, 2014

Opinion: We Must Ensure Everyone Has Access to Equal Justice


Editor’s Note: This article is a collaboration of the author and the New Hampshire Bar Association based on an article that was first published in The Boston Globe on Oct. 23, 2014.

Neglected in today’s headlines, blogs, and talk radio is a silent, shameful crisis that inflicts suffering and costs the nation money, legitimacy, and decency. Our justice system has become inaccessible to millions of poor people and so every day we violate the “equal justice under law” motto engraved on the front of the grand United States Supreme Court.

Americans who cannot afford legal help routinely forfeit basic rights as a result. Because the law does not enforce itself, veterans seeking benefits the nation has guaranteed, victims of domestic violence needing legal protection, and tenants or homeowners pursuing their rights since the financial disaster, all need advisors and guides through the law and its agencies and courts.

Across the country nonprofit organizations, private law firms, and individual lawyers offer civil legal aid to those with limited incomes by handling their legal cases. I serve as vice chair of the federal Legal Services Corporation, which distributes grants to states based on their low-income populations. When this bipartisan federal effort started in 1974 with legislation signed by President Richard Nixon, 12 percent of the population was qualified, but today, due to soaring poverty levels, nearly 21 percent of Americans are eligible. Yet the federal contribution has dropped $35 million in the last 20 years.

The problem is not remote; low-income people denied their legal rights live around the corner from you.

As vice chair of the Legal Services Corporation, I have worked with colleagues in New Hampshire who are on the frontlines. I salute the advocates at New Hampshire Legal Advice & Referral Center (LARC), an LSC grantee, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and the New Hampshire Pro Bono Referral Program – one of the oldest statewide pro bono programs in the country.

Research funded by the New Hampshire Bar Foundation found that in the Granite State the gap between resources and civil legal needs is jaw-dropping: in 2010, the three main legal services providers were able to play a role in only 8,403 civil cases. That amounts to less than 6 percent of the estimated total assistance needed. Conservatively, the study estimated that New Hampshire has 149,101 low-income residents with civil legal needs. Since that study was completed, the needs have grown at the same rate that the available resources have diminished.

Failure to support civil legal services does not only abandon those in need – it also costs everyone else. In 2012, the New Hampshire Access to Justice Commission funded an important study of the potential economic impact of increasing resources for civil legal services. Taking a long view, the study found that greater funding for civil legal services would boost the state’s economy by $84 million over 10 years, including:

  • $26 million in boosted incomes through successful advocacy for federal benefits such as social security, disability benefits, and tax refunds;
  • $42.7 million in additional economic activity with spending on food, clothing, health care, and so on;
  • $12.8 million in child and spousal support, usually received for at least five years;
  • $2.8 million in estimated annual savings on avoided costs where legal advocacy helped prevent domestic violence and homelessness.

The Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, on which I served, similarly found that every dollar spent on legal assistance for low-income individuals returns between $2 and $5 to the Commonwealth in savings to foster care, emergency housing, emergency health care, other social services, and economic growth. These economic benefits are just one way of measuring the impact of addressing the justice gap. More important, clients receiving civil legal help find their lives positively transformed as their legal rights are enforced.

Other states are finding ways to address civil legal services needs. A task force created by the New York Legislature and led by New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman last year persuaded the legislature to more than double yearly funding of civil legal assistance to $70 million.

New Hampshire could become a model for other states. New Hampshire’s civil legal services providers are already recognized nationally for their innovations in leveraging their modest funding, collaborating effectively to provide services, and inventing effective ways to help low-income people navigate courts and agencies.

Civil legal services help people stay in their homes, obtain services for which they qualify, keep their children in school, and enjoy the rights that the law says they have. Meeting the needs in New Hampshire is a winnable goal with a combination of increased public support and smart deployment of financial resources and pro bono services.

Lawyers volunteer their time by taking pro bono cases, and non-lawyers can help, too. Volunteers can assist legal services providers with time, technical assistance, and donations to advance the Campaign for Legal Services, which supports civil legal services providers in New Hampshire. Anyone can help by speaking to your elected representatives and so we can make real the promise of “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Martha Minow

Martha Minow is dean of Harvard Law School, vice chair of the Legal Services Corporation, and a member of Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.

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