Tag Archives: affordable legal services

Legal aid is infrastructure, not welfare: got to have bridges so traffic can move

Word has come that the next federal budget will cut or eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Legal Services Corporation is the largest funder of legal services for the poor in the country.

Does the impetus for cutting legal aid come from a sense that legal aid to the poor is a form of welfare? Does it come from a sense that legal aid funds lawsuits against the wealthy?

That’s the wrong way to look at it. Legal aid, even when given free to the undeserving poor, is not a handout. It’s an investment in infrastructure.

The rule of law is the foundation of the economy and society. And it depends on the justice system.

Our system is complex and getting more so. (“Increasing complexity is the story of human evolution, and the story of how and why law emerged.“)

If poor people do not have effective access to this complex system, two bad things happen. First, the legal entanglements of the poor clog and burden the system. Either controversies don’t get resolved, or people try to fix them without assistance. That makes things worse.

Second, bad outcomes contaminate society. People get soured and distracted from positive, productive pursuits.

North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin perceptively points to domestic affairs: spousal abuse, child abuse, child custody, divorces. Often intervention by the justice system is the only fix in those cases. People helping themselves makes things worse.

That’s domestic relations. The same things can happen with healthcare, housing, veterans’ rights, benefits for the elderly, and any number of other everyday things. The unmet legal needs of poor people in these areas are growing, while funding is already on the decline.

Removing legal aid from the federal budget will make things worse. It will make our system more expensive for everybody, not less. And it will exacerbate negative spirits generally — in a way that drags down the economy, politics, and society at large.

Legal Services Corporation channels funds to local agencies such as Legal Aid of North Carolina. If there’s something wrong with Legal Services in particular, then fix that. But don’t take the resources out of the system.

Legal aid ain’t a handout. It’s bridges and roads.

Traffic has to move. Pay me now, or pay me more later.

 

 

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.

Demand for legal services booming; lawyer hiring down — what’s up?

It’s an abiding irony of the “legal industry” bear-fighting-tigertoday that, even as lawyer hiring is way down  and a return to growth in law firms is said to be a “mirage” – and as students are staying away from law schools in droves – the demand for legal services is said to be growing – maybe even growing “exponentially” (as the phrase goes).

Here’s the catch: the growth is in legal work that lawyers (understandably) don’t want to do. It’s work that doesn’t pay. This includes (i) legal services needed by low-wealth clienteles, and  (ii) what is called “tiny law” (legal services for small matters), and (iii) legal decision making that is now embedded in so many routine commercial and social transactions.

As many as 80% of Americans are said unable to find affordable legal services.

Even as lawyers evince little interest in low-pay and no-pay work, many want to hold the line on “the unauthorized practice of law.” They scrutinize computerized services which target low-pay customers and they mistrust law-related services delivered by people without law licenses. That’s understandable. Relaxing “unauthorized practice of law” strictures, can threaten harm both to unsophisticated consumers and to the legal system. But, at the same time, help from internet providers, corporate vendors and paralegals may be better than no help at all for unsophisticated consumers and others. Reportedly, millions are satisfied with the “unauthorized” providers.

This is going to take some sorting out.

Apparently, the ABA has begun.