Tag Archives: Legal Aid

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.

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.

 

 

The Trouble with Lawyers — new book identifies the challenges, suggests responses

Rhode bookThere’s a new book, another book, about the trouble with lawyers. It’s called The Trouble with Lawyers.

The National Law Journal has published a short interview with the the author, Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode. In that interview, Professor Rhode makes two points that have been made here before.

NLJ: What is the biggest challenge that the American bar is facing today?

Rhode: I think it’s a shameful irony that the nation with one of the world’s highest concentration of lawyers does such a poor job of making their services available to those who need help most. Over four-fifths of the legal needs of poor individuals are not being met. And that’s a problem with enormous social costs.

NLJ: Are law schools part of the problem or part of the solution?

Rhode: I think the one-size-fits-all model we currently have fails to address the diversity in what lawyers do. It just makes no sense to train in the same way someone who’s going to be doing divorces in a small town and the person who’s going to be doing financial mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. We need to recognize the diversity in legal tasks and to have corresponding diversity in legal education. The book argues for having one-year, two-year and three-year degrees.

Deborah Rhode is a Stanford law professor, said to be the nation’s most frequently cited scholar on legal ethics. She’s a past president of the Association of American Law Schools.

If nothing else, it’s instructive to see which issues are rising to the top: the two identified above and others also addressed in the book.

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.

 

 

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.