Addressing the justice gap

A New York Times editorial this week called for expanding civil legal services to the poor:

“In civil proceedings like divorces, child support cases, home foreclosures, bankruptcies and landlord-tenant disputes, the number of people representing themselves in court has soared since the economy soured. Experts estimate that four-fifths of low-income people have no access to a lawyer when they need one. Research shows that litigants representing themselves often fare less well than those with lawyers. This ‘justice gap’ falls heavily on the poor, particularly in overburdened state courts.

“There is plenty the government, the legal profession and others can do to improve this shameful state of affairs. With the economic downturn, only around two-thirds of law school graduates in 2010 got jobs for which a law degree is required, the lowest rate since 1996. That leaves the other third — close to 15,000 lawyers — who, with financial support from government and the legal profession, could be using their legal expertise to help some of those who need representation.

“While the Constitution requires that defendants in criminal cases be provided a lawyer, there is no such guarantee in civil cases. The Legal Services Corporation, created by Congress, gives out federal grants that provide the bulk of support for legal aid to the poor. Over the decades, that budget has shrunk — it was $404 million in 2011, about one-third less than it was 15 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The House Appropriations Committee has proposed reducing that to $300 million for 2012. The cut would be devastating; the budget should, instead, be increased. ”

To read the entire editorial, click here.

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