...with Liberty and Justice for All* *who can afford it

. . . with Liberty and Justice for All*

*who can afford it

 By Traci Ext

Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists...it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.  ~Lewis Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice

     In April, Congress made the decision to cut funding to Legal Services Corporation by 4%.  $104 million more in cuts, or another 26% of LSC’s budget, have been proposed for next year.  LSC has been in existence since 1974 and is an independent nonprofit corporation created by Congress to promote equal access to justice and fund legal assistance for civil cases to low-income individuals and families.  The latest cuts will mean loss of attorney staff and services at LSC-funded legal aid programs across the country, which were already facing hard economic times.  Legal aid programs are also being rocked by cuts in state funding, which is generated through the interest earned on bank accounts lawyers are required to use for their client funds.  With interest rates at all-time lows, legal services programs and their clients lose. 

     Meanwhile, the need for legal services for low-income persons continues to grow.  LSC reports that just last year the programs it funds worked on almost 1 million cases, affecting 2.3 million people.  The programs helped another 1.4 million people through referrals to private lawyers, self-help workshops, and other programs.  Foreclosure, unemployment compensation, landlord-tenant, bankruptcy/debt relief/consumer, and domestic violence cases have all significantly increased for low-income families in recent years.

     Imagine a man, John, who has a full-time, well-paying job, a house, a family.  He loses his job and now has no income.  He’s no longer able to make the house payments.  The house goes into foreclosure.  The stress leads his wife to file for divorce.  He ends up homeless.  Because of his age and lack of permanent address, he’s unable to find work.  Or a woman, Mary, who is a single mother of two, living in an apartment and working for a temp agency.  She gets cancer and has no health insurance to pay for treatment.  Because of her absences due to her illness, the temp agency lets her go.  Within two months, with no way to pay the rent, having used all her savings for her medical care, she and her children are evicted and end up with no place to go.  There are so many points where access to legal services could have kept bad luck from spiraling into life-ruining catastrophe.  Having a lawyer represent you before the unemployment hearing officer can make the difference and win the case for benefits, especially when you can bet the employer had an attorney putting together their defense. A lawyer could have helped John through the foreclosure process to prevent the foreclosure or at least assist in negotiating with the bank for lower payments or a short sale, or delaying the proceedings long enough for him to have a chance to get another job or source of income and a place to live.  Maybe with an attorney’s advice, Mary could have learned about Medicaid and received help to apply and obtain benefits she could have used for health services.

     Even the parts of the justice system that are supposed to be navigable by a person without an attorney are not.  If small claims court was really designed for people to go without an attorney, then you probably wouldn’t run into so many lawyers there.  And those are cases where the stakes were low.  Trying to represent yourself with your house or your federally subsidized housing or the custody of your children or your basic freedom at risk is bad enough.  But when the other side doesn’t have as much to lose, yet has the balance of power, money, and experience as well as an attorney to fight their case, what chance do you have? 

     And lack of income isn’t the only barrier to justice.  Add in other factors like a disability, limited English proficiency, or illiteracy and you are likely to find the doors to the halls of justice simply aren’t open to you.  After all, it took until 2004, and a trip all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Lane, for our society to figure out that forcing a paraplegic criminal defendant to crawl up two flights of stairs at an inaccessible courthouse with no elevator was justice denied.   (p.s. For just that one case it took six years and a whole lot of lawyers to get there).

      If justice is really to be blind, don’t we have to make sure her scales aren’t tipped to the side of those with power and money before the case is even heard?  There is some bright news – pro bono volunteering is up – in Ohio, attorneys put in 45% more pro bono hours in 2010 than they did in 2009.  And in our area, we have very dedicated, experienced, skilled legal services programs to assist low-income individuals.  But in our society as a whole, we have a long way to go.  In the rush to make debt-ceiling deals and decrease the deficit, legal assistance for those who need it the most should be the last thing to go.

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio

 If you need legal assistance:

  •  Legal Aid Society of Cleveland: 888-817-3777 or 216-687-1900.  Intake hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. M,W, F, and 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on T, Th.  Or attend a brief advice clinic, scheduled in varying locations in the area several times each month.  For upcoming clinics, visit: http://lasclev.org/category/events/upcoming/month
  •  2-1-1 First Call for Help
  •  Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program: Call 216-432-0543 or attend an intake session or the monthly self-help divorce clinic