Category Archives: Access to Justice

Response to burdens on justice system: legal navigators sail into view

The statistics about the courts are so extreme that you can’t believe them: 30 million people a year are unrepresented in state courts; 86% of the civil legal problems of low-income people go with little or no legal help.

You can’t relate to numbers like this. There’s a phrase for it: “psychic numbing.”

The 30 million cases are mostly low-dollar, routine kinds of things. So the most representative stories aren’t all that dramatic. They are numbingly mundane.

The real story is about the system.

Nobody loves the system. But the system is the infrastructure for the rule of law. And the rule of law keeps the economy moving. The growing burdens on the system are the result of an increasingly complex society. The system is overloaded.

Innovations are needed.

A response is beginning to gather. Where a high volume of low-dollar, routine traffic is choking the system, the idea is that you don’t need a Juris Doctor to handle those problems, even though you do need somebody who knows what they are doing. The response that’s gathering support is to create a new category of legal services, or a new cohort of legal services providers, ones that are focussed on limited legal processes or procedures. Ones that focus on the mundane.

Call them navigators for now. They don’t need a three-year legal education in order to know what they are doing and to do better than non-lawyers representing themselves.

The context for legal services – a critical system is staggering under the load

The Internet says that the population of the United States is a bit more than 229 million people.Bird caught in a net

The Justice Lab at Georgetown Law Center estimates that 30 million people every year lack legal representation in state courts cases.

In seventy-five percent of civil cases in state courts, at least one party is unrepresented. Eighty-six percent of the civil legal problems of low-income people get little or no legal help.

This is not a lawyer problem. It is a system problem.

The United States has created an exceedingly complex society. Rich or poor, everyone gets entangled with the legal system at every turn: housing, healthcare, education, domestic relations, domestic violence, jobs, consumer finance, retirement, disaster recovery, insurance, veterans, taxes, citizenship, death.

The system is clogged. Poor people trying to resolve legal issues in a clogged system without lawyersExacerbatious.

The problem goes to the foundations of the rule of law. It is bigger than something lawyers alone can fix.

 

 

WUNC to broadcast interview with Brian Lampkin about The Tarboro Three

The Tarboro Three will be a lead story on WUNC’s The State of Things next Tuesday (August 20) at noon.

Frank Stasio will interview author and former Tarboro resident Brian Lampkin about Brian’s recent book, The Tarboro Three: Rape, Race, and Secrecy (Scuppernong Editions/2019).

The Tarboro Three is of interest for the story itself of course, but it’s also worth reading to see how a Tarboro immigrant, now emigrant, observed and now interprets Tarboro.

The interview will air on Tuesday, but then it’ll be posted on WUNC’s website as a podcast after that. WUNC is on “terrestrial radio” at 91.5 FM in the Chapel Hill/Raleigh/Durham area; at 88.9 FM from Manteo, serving the North East outer banks and coastal communities; at 91.9 from Fayetteville; at 91.1 just south of Winston-Salem in the Welcome, NC, area; and, at 90.9 FM from Rocky Mount.

New book about Tarboro, worth a close look

Two weeks ago Brian Lampkin’s book came out. The Tarboro Three: Rape, Race, and Secrecy.

No time yet to read it, but MidLaw has given it a heavy skim. The publisher’s blurb sets it in line with Blood Done Sign My Name, Oxford’s “raw mix of memoir and history.” And no story of race, sex, and the legal system set in a small Southern town can be without its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird.

A preliminary skim suggests that The Tarboro Three looks well written, fair minded, and after bigger game than simply recounting news stories or skewering villains. Lampkin, who wrote for the Daily Southerner for a time and is now in Greensboro, recaptures much of what set Tarboro apart from similar small places — its history, its legends, the people, and its racial culture — and displays them in the light of an awful event.

Looks like he saw complexity and decency as well as injustice and drama. His book is worth a close look.

North Carolina lawyer John McMillan

Word has come of the death of North Carolina lawyer John B. McMillan.

John embodied the finest attributes and traditions of North Carolina lawyers. Among those was service to the profession and to the justice system. He combined humility and forcefulness with unique grace – proving indeed that humility and force can be combined gracefully.

Ten years ago, John wrote a very fine article, The Long Road to Founding the North Carolina State Bar. While the subject matter of that article is not directly relevant at this moment, it is a valuable, engaging piece and John’s voice is in it. I commented on the article some time back, and have thought of it since I learned that he has died.

A very, very fine lawyer and man.

Justice innovations — chucking 20th Century models out the window

In the clamor about innovation in the legal profession, a singular idea is striking a chord.

Real innovation, some are saying, will not consist of new ways to perform the chores of 20th Century lawyering. Instead, real innovation will focus on new ways to solve people’s problems. Maybe not every legal problem requires a lawyer. Maybe not every question implicates the Magna Carta.

Outside the justice business, the great new companies of the 21st Century — Amazon, Apple, Uber — are chucking 20th Century models out the window. They are reinventing what they do and getting things done cheaper and faster than ever before.

For law, it’s different.

Society has gotten way more complex. Demands for law-based outcomes have exploded —especially in low-dollar personal contexts like healthcare, housing, domestic affairs, veterans rights, social security, disaster recovery, and consumer financial issues. But legal outcomes continue to be delivered for the most part in the same old ways.

All this weighs most heavily on people without a lot of money. They are the ones with all the domestic and housing and veterans issues. 80% of the people who need to use the justice system can’t afford it. They can’t afford the lawyers. And the ones who can afford lawyers aren’t happy about that. Too often, they get expensive, slow, lawyer-centered solutions. “There is far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot.

Innovations are coming, but before now they have focussed mostly on how lawyers work, and not so much on customer experiences.

In North Carolina though, some intimations of change are appearing. George Hausen says that Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) is North Carolina’s “laboratory of innovation” for the justice system and he claims some victories. He points to

  • LANC-fostered medical-legal partnerships,
  • LANC’s eviction diversion program,
  • LANC’S call center, self-help clinics, and videos,
  • LANC’S foreclosure prevention programs, and
  • partnerships between LANC and North Carolina’s members of Congress to ensure delivery of veterans benefits.

LANC catches problems aborning and finds solutions that bypass the legal system. They take lawyers out of the picture.

LANC receives high volumes of requests for services in low-dollar kerfuffles. It has developed expertise in subject matters that not many private lawyers can match such as personal housing issues, foreclosure prevention, consumer issues, veterans benefits, healthcare, domestic violence, natural disasters. LANC’s perspectives on the system (high-volume, low-dollar) are unique. Its solutions are innovative.

Government support and private philanthropy (institutional and personal) for LANC is a good investment in justice system innovation. LANC needs a lot more support than it gets.

A storm blows your house down and you have to have a lawyer

N&O storm photo

Legal aid brings legal services to help with basic human needs of people who can’t afford lawyers.

Right now in Greensboro, Legal Aid of North Carolina is bringing disaster legal services to people hit by that tornado:

  • Assistance with appeals of FEMA and other benefits available to disaster survivors
  • Assistance with life, medical and property insurance claims
  • Help with home repair contracts and contractors
  • Replacement of wills and other important legal documents destroyed in the disaster
  • Assisting in consumer protection matters, remedies, and procedures
  • Counseling on mortgage-foreclosure problems
  • Counseling on landlord/tenant problems

Legal Aid of North Carolina, the North Carolina Bar Association, the American Bar Association and FEMA are bringing Disaster Legal Services for low-income tornado survivors in Greensboro. There is a hotline: 1-833-242-3549.

Far more than in the past, people need legal services to help with basic needs. It’s the system we have built. Disaster relief is a small department of the help that Legal Aid delivers to low wealth people.

There’s a lot more to say:

  • why legal assistance for everybody must be a key feature in the complex system we have built;
  • why needed services can’t be provided solely by volunteer pro bono assistance; and so,
  • why Legal Aid needs and merits both government and charitable resources.

For now, it’s good to know they’re on the job in Greensboro. That tornado was a disaster.

Richard Posner leaves bench to invest time in promoting access to justice

Thirty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan appointed Richard Posner to the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals. At the time, Posner was a well-known conservative legal scholar, particularly identified with the “economic analysis of law.” He had written a book with that name.

Recently, he announced that he is leaving the bench. The New York Times says

The immediate reason [was that] he had become concerned with the plight of litigants who represented themselves in civil cases …. Their grievances were real, he said, but the legal system was treating them impatiently, dismissing their cases over technical matters.

“These were almost always people of poor education and often of quite low level of intelligence,” he said. “I gradually began to realize that this wasn’t right, what we were doing.”

Posner’s goal now is “to bring attention and aid to people too poor to afford lawyers.”

Posner’s concerns about access-to-justice place him in line with Antonin Scalia and Neil Gorsuch.

Antonin Scalia advocated for support of legal aid, fundamental to justice

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believed that the Legal Services Corporation (and, by extension, its client, Legal Aid of North Carolina) pursue equal justice, which is

the most fundamental of American ideals and they pursue equal justice in those areas of life most important to the lives of our citizens. The bulk of [their] cases, if you look at their annual report, involve domestic violence, real estate foreclosures and evictions, child custody, and denial of veterans’ benefits, unemployment compensation, and other governmental benefits. More than a third of the cases closed by [Legal Services] grantees in 2013 involved family law and more than a quarter of them housing.

Scalia asked, “Can there be justice if it is not equal, can there be a just society when some do not have justice?”

And he answered,

Equality, equal treatment is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice. . . . And in today’s law-ridden society, denial of access to professional legal assistance is denial of equal justice.”

It’s fair (more than fair, it’s necessary ) to explore alternative means of delivering equal justice: technology, delivery of services by others than licensed lawyers, new sources of funding. Indeed, it’s reasonable to hope that those who develop new alternatives will be able to do it on a for-profit basis and make lots of money. (The scale is surely there.)

But it’s not right to cut funds before alternatives are available.

Justice Scalia said:

Equality … is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice.

NC legal system — invest or divest?

In the past year the North Carolina legislature enacted cuts or reductions (or proposed to) in the following, which might be characterized as the infrastructure of North Carolina’s legal system.

The number of trial court judges (emergency judges)

               The number of appellate judges

The budget (therefore staff) of the Department of Justice

Funds (therefore staff) for Legal Aid of North Carolina (formerly taken from filing fees)

Funds for the UNC Law School

Dues (paid by lawyers) that fund the North Carolina State Bar.

In periods leading to this year, North Carolina’s population has grown and its economy has grown. Commerce has picked up and unemployment has dropped. The State has pursued a policy of promoting trade and business investment in North Carolina by companies outside the state and outside the United States.

Unless North Carolina’s legal system was overfunded in the past, the conclusion might be reached that more, not fewer, resources are needed to maintain what we’ve got.

The American justice system is credited as a core element of the economic and cultural success of the United States. Enforcement of obligations (commercial and other) —predictably, impartially, efficiently and effectively — is a big part of what made America great.

And, actually, we are at a time when improvements are needed.