Bar News - February 22, 2013
The Justice Gap
By: Dan Wise
Ensuring access to justice is a steep climb in NH
NOTE: Italicized content was added on Feb. 21.
A new study shows New Hampshire’s primary legal services providers help only 6 percent of low-income residents who could benefit from free legal representation. Compared with a national average of 20 percent, the New Hampshire rate has a significant negative impact on the state’s economy, said Richard Uchida, co-chair of the NH Access to Justice Commission, at a Feb. 21 press conference in Concord.
Better serving the civil legal needs of vulnerable New Hampshire citizens would provide benefits, savings and an economic boost to individuals, businesses, communities and the state that would total $84.4 million over a decade, according to an economic analysis that accompanies the recent legal needs study.
Summaries of the study and economic analysis, as well as the full reports, are available on the New Hampshire Access to Justice Commission's website.
Appearing with Uchida at the press conference Thursday were former NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, now the dean of UNH Law; Joseph Reilly, president and CEO of Centrix Bank, a longtime IOLTA Leadership Bank; and former state Senator Dr. James Squires, who is also the former president of Endowment for Health.
“This is not an issue about money, or at least it shouldn’t be,” Dr. Squires said. “… This is about those last three words of the Pledge of Allegiance... 'justice for all.’”
Broderick commended Gov. Maggie Hassan for including funds for legal services in her proposed state budget and called providing these services “a moral imperative.”
“This is an important study,” he said. “It needs to produce results.”
The NH Access to Justice Commission, which commissioned the legal needs study, is one of 27 such commissions in the United States designed to improve access to civil justice for low- and moderate-income people in states and other jurisdictions.
A new study documents the wide gap between the civil legal needs of poor and vulnerable people in New Hampshire and the resources available to help them. The legal needs assessment shows that the combined efforts of the state’s primary legal services providers – the NH Pro Bono Referral Program, NH Legal Assistance, and the Legal Advice & Referral Center – satisfied less than 6 percent of the need for legal help among low-income residents in 2010. The study was commissioned by the NH Access to Justice Commission and the LARC and funded by the NH Bar Foundation.
Based on norms developed from research in several states, the study estimates that 149,000 of the state’s 250,000 low-income residents could have benefited from legal services that year, but the legal aid agencies were only able to handle 8,403 cases. Single mothers, disabled people and the elderly are those most likely to need legal help, according to the study.
"The mismatch between legal needs and services has numerous ramifications," the study authors wrote. "It makes a material difference to low-income people already in difficult circumstances, for whom legal help might make the difference between staying in their homes or receiving needed public benefits."
The study’s findings, paired with an analysis of the economic benefits of better serving these legal needs, are part of a new public outreach effort that included a February 21 press conference in Concord.
The legal needs assessment was conducted by researchers at Dartmouth College’s Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. The results of an economic impact study, conducted by Resources for Great Programs, Inc., a research firm familiar with legal services programs, were not available at Bar News deadline. The study was commissioned to estimate the economic benefits and savings gained from legal services funding.
Similar economic studies in other states have shown a significant multiplier effect – and needed relief – by providing civil legal services in such areas as federal benefits (social security disability benefits) and child support. Advocacy in housing cases and domestic violence protection has been shown to prevent homelessness and reduce the need for homeless shelter services, health care services, mental health services, and more. (Following the news conference, the NH Access to Justice Commission will be distributing this information in a variety of ways. Watch the e-Bulletin for more information as it becomes available.)
The legal needs assessment, a 48-page report available as a PDF at www.nhlegalaid.org, www.nhbar.org and on the website of the Access to Justice Commission at the Judicial Branch website, examines the obstacles to legal access for low-income people, details the programs currently offering services, and offers suggestions on how to close the gap.
Among the obstacles to obtaining legal help that low-income people face are:
Low-income women with families are disproportionately represented among those with civil legal needs. These women often have difficulty accessing legal help in sexual and domestic violence situations and disproportionately bear financial burdens for raising children and maintaining households on their own. In fact, 18 percent of children in New Hampshire are raised by single mothers. Eviction and consumer cases in our state most often involve single mothers, the report notes.
- a lack of transportation or difficulties with physical access;
- no knowledge that a legal remedy exists;
- little belief that the justice system can work for them; and
- fear of the repercussions of addressing the problem.
The needs assessment details the ripple effects of leaving so many people without access to the legal system, including a related rise in self-representation, which takes its toll on the justice system in many ways.
"There are a number of reasons for the high level of unmet legal need," the report concludes. "Many low-income residents lack basic knowledge about how to navigate the court system; others do not see their problems as having a legal remedy. Most cannot afford legal representation or do not know that legal services exist. And those who choose to represent themselves can strain an already overtaxed court system."
The legal needs study suggests the following steps be taken to begin closing the "justice gap."
The NH Access to Justice Commission was created by the NH Supreme Court to bring together the courts, legal organizations, social service agencies and other parties to foster changes to improve citizens’ access to the courts. The economic impact study was supported by a grant from the ABA’s Access to Justice Commission Expansion Project.
- Expand access for civil legal services for low-income people, with increased resources to help prevent problems of poverty or domestic violence from worsening, and to reduce the drain on court resources through more effective representation.
- Improve resources to assist self-represented litigants, such as case managers, service centers, and educational workshops and materials at the courts; expand access to legal advice from experienced volunteers; and
- Increase coordination between service providers to these populations to ensure, for example, that Community Action Program workers refer clients with legal needs accordingly.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Joel Emlen, an attorney at the McLane law firm and a graduate of the Leadership Academy Class of 2012, who is volunteering to assist the NH Bar Foundation on the rollout of the legal needs report.