Tag Archives: Access to Justice

Closing the loop on legal aid, not in a good way

The budget finally adopted by North Carolina’s General Assembly entirely eliminates funding for the State’s legal aid agencies ($1.7 million).

Until now, that amount had been generated by taking $1.50 from every court fee and distributing it to Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services, which provide legal services to poor people in North Carolina.

The point has been made here that as many as a third of North Carolina citizens qualify for legal aid. Sixty percent of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s clients earn less than $15,000 a year.

Those people, like the rest of us, must have access to the legal system, even if they can’t afford it, where

  • They are victims of domestic violence
  • They don’t get child support
  • They need to create guardianships for their grandchildren
  • They get ripped off by scammers of the elderly
  • They get fouled up applying for legislated benefits, including veterans benefits

and in a great range of other cases.

This is not a partisan issue.

21st Century society is complex. It cannot move without legal process. Everyone must use the system. And everybody needs access to legal services when they do.

Legal aid helps people get a hearing. It does not engage in politics. It does not pursue social change. And it does not target interest groups.

We all need the legal system to work at a minimal level for everybody who’s involved with it. Otherwise, over time bigger problems will develop.

For the General Assembly to stop a small portion of court fees from going to fund legal aid is bad for everyone, not just poor people.

The legislature made a mistake.

 

NC legislature proposes to eliminate access to civil justice funds — troubling

Word has come that the North Carolina House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee has proposed a provision for the 2017 Budget entitled “Eliminate Access to Civil Justice Funds.” It would eliminate approximately $1.7 million in combined funding for Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and Pisgah Legal Services. Eliminating Access to Civil Justice Funds would cause drastic reductions in legal aid agencies’ services to those most in need, undermining equal access to justice for North Carolina citizens.

Take this provision together with the President’s proposed federal budget, which eliminates funding for the Legal Services Corporation, and access to the justice system will be cut off for a large number of North Carolina’s neediest people.

This includes access to legal services in cases of domestic violence, for disabled persons, for veterans, and in so many other cases.

Some issues in everyone’s lives, important issues, can only be resolved with access to the justice system. People who cannot afford legal assistance and seek to represent themselves, clog the courts. When important issues are not resolved, people are diverted from productive pursuits.

We already have a problem because so many cannot afford access to the system.

Reductions from current funding levels will make things worse.

Supreme Court nominee says cost of access to justice broke, needs fixing

Judge Neil Gorsuch, said last year

In the American civil justice system many important legal rights go unvindicated, serious losses remain uncompensated, and those called on to defend their conduct are often forced to spend altogether too much.

“Legal services in the United States are so expensive,” he says, “that the United States ranks near the bottom of developed nations when it comes to access to counsel in civil cases.” 100 Judicature 46 (Autumn 2016).

Judge Gorsuch says we need to fix this. We need to change.

Looking beyond the possibility of increased public financing, which in 2016 he thought might be challenging, he suggested three ways to fix things:

  1. Permit delivery of more legal services by persons not licensed as lawyers, to include stock ownership of law firms and other alternative business structures.
  2. Change the rules of civil procedure to require early trials and mandate automatic disclosure of evidence.
  3. Shorten law school training and liken it more to trade schooling.

A change, the Judge says, would do you good.

A closed system — you have to have a lawyer to get in or out

Bird caught in a netAt one time, many politicians perceived legal aid as a program that subsidized poor people to assert grievances in the courts against businesses and institutions. That is not the case for legal aid, not now. Now, it’s about access to social systems.

American social, economic and government systems have become staggeringly complex. Ordinary people, when they encounter snarls in these systems, can hardly cope. Not without help. Think: mortgages and credit, employment, health care, consumer scams, domestic relations, government benefits, retirement, taxes.

People turn to lawyers when they get into these jams. In many cases only lawyers are permitted to help. Anything else is the unauthorized practice of law.

Where the system is so complex, the case for legal aid is about access to the system –  not subsidizing lawsuits. It’s about the social system; not the justice system.

80% of the civil legal needs of poor people are not met. And that applies to 20% of the people in North Carolina. 34% of the children.

The system ain’t working.

Affordable legal services in a society bound everywhere by rules – problem

At one time many politicians opposed federal funding for civil legal aid because they were concerned that the money was used to fund social justice litigation.help

Well, now the focus of legal aid is on domestic violence, consumer scams, seniors, veterans, the disabled, housing, and protecting household income. Some of this work may be about social justice, but mostly it is about providing assistance to people who can’t afford legal services and protecting their rights in a complex, law-bound society.

In a society that is dependent on contracts and rules (private and public), affordable justice is necessary – else the society will not work – but in North Carolina right now, legal services are not readily accessible to 20% of citizens and 80% of their needs are not met.

I see three alternatives for fixing the problem:

  • Lawyers can do the work for free,
  • Government and private sources can pay lawyers to do the work, or
  • Non-lawyers can be allowed to do the work under appropriate conditions.

If I had to give a grade for fairness to a social system that is centered on rights, agreements and responsibilities but where 20% of the people have limited access to legal help, I’d have a hard time getting above a C, or a C-minus. What do you think?

Unmet civil legal needs of poor people growing; funding shrinking

lancszIn a recent post, I went and said

Legislatures are reducing government funding for legal aid programs even as the demand grows.

Well,

  • 20% of the population in North Carolina qualifies for legal aid
  • 34% of children and 18% of old people (“seniors”) are eligible for legal aid
  • 80% of the civil legal needs of poor people are not met.

Since 2008, the need for legal aid is up 30% and funding is down

  • Federal funding down 35%
  • State funding down 33%
  • United Way funding down 32%
  • IOLTA funding down 30%.

Source: NC Access to Justice Fact Sheet

I told you so.