Sunday, October 23, 2005

A serious justice gap in America

At least 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans are not being met, concludes a study by the Legal Services Corporation.

And the study probably understates the need not being met.

An analysis of the potential clients who came to legal services offices determined that for each client who received legal assistance, one applicant was turned away because the office lacked resources to help everyone. This count indicates that roughly one million cases are rejected every year.

People who received advice rather than full representation were counted among those helped. People with serious legal needs who did not seek assistance were not counted at all.

Over the past five years, nine states examined the delivery of legal services to low-income persons. These studies concluded that only a very small percentage of the legal problems experienced by low-income people -- less than 1 in 5 -- is addressed with the assistance of a pro bono attorney or a legal-aid organization (whether funded by LSC or by other sources).

The state studies also show that a large percentage of low-income people experiencing a problem with a legal dimension do not understand that there may be a legal solution and that a majority do not know about the availability of free legal services.

Another perspective on the justice gap is provided by a count which shows that there is one legal-aid attorney for every 6,861 low-income persons, while the ratio of attorneys delivering civil legal assistance to the general population is about 1 for every 525 persons, or 13 times more.

Read an overview here and the entire report here.

LSC says these studies demonstrate the need for additional funding. But some in Congress have proposed eliminating LSC’s funding altogether. See previous post here.

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As an attorney who has represented people with the means to file law suits those very suits are rarely pursued once the client learns the legal fees will often exceed the potential damages recoverable in the suit.

That the poor cannot afford lawyers is lamentable. The reality though is that legal fees in and of themselves often make meaningful representation unavailable for all but the very wealthy and large corporations.

When you must advise a client to accept 15 to 20 percent of what is owed them because of the likelihood of the previously mentioned legal fees exceeding the debt owed or the expenses in merely collecting the judgment awarded I rarely find much satisfaction in my job.

Your concerns for the indigent or less fortunate members of our society actually apply to those in the middle and even upper middle classes.

 
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