The Justice Gap in America
September 30, 2009 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Nearly one million people who seek help for civil legal problems, such as foreclosures and domestic violence, will be turned away this year. A new report by the Legal Services Corporation, a non-profit established by Congress in 1974 to ensure equal access to justice, finds that legal aid programs turn away one person for every client served. The full report, "Documenting the Justice Gap in America" is available here (pdf). The 2009 report is an update and expansion on a 2005 report (available here) finding that 80% of the poor lacked access to legal aid.

Some of the problem may be due to restrictions placed on non-profits that provide legal aid, including prohibiting LSC-funded programs from participating in class actions, seeking attorneys' fees, or advocating before administrative or legislative bodies for policy reform. The restrictions also make certain groups of people ineligible for legal representation from LSC-funded programs entirely and block organizations from using any other funds for any service or activity that they are barred from providing with LSC dollars. There is a bill currently being considered to end what some have deemed unjust restrictions on those providing access to legal aid.
posted by lunit (7 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I currently work as a legal aid attorney in Virginia, and it is heartbreaking how many people we turn away on a daily basis. In my service area, we have seen a huge rise in domestic violence and family law cases, the vast majority of which (as in well over 75% of people that call) we have to turn down, as we only have funding for one DV attorney. Most of our current work is focused on predatory lending, foreclosure prevention (my area), personal bankruptcies and landlord-tenant issues.
posted by thewittyname at 2:28 PM on September 30, 2009

I don't know how many we turn down, but I'd guess it's 75% or more. We're not LSC-funded, so it's just a matter of staffing. The LSC funding restrictions, from what I understand, probably don't have a lot of effect on how many people get turned down for direct legal services. They're more about making sure poor people can't get lawyers who can work toward large-scale reform. So, if you get LSC funding, you can work within the existing system, but you can't try to change it.

And there are some areas of law that, in my experience, almost no one does free, like trusts and estates, bankruptcies, and non-DV divorces (which are done, but with years-long waiting lists).
posted by Mavri at 2:35 PM on September 30, 2009

Shoot, that link - to the full report - should be this.
posted by lunit at 2:46 PM on September 30, 2009

There's a well-documented glut of attorneys on the market right now, particularly in large metropolitan areas. Can't legal services organizations take advantage of that? Help for the LSOs, resume-polishing for the lawyers: seems to me like a win-win.
posted by orrnyereg at 4:38 PM on September 30, 2009

orrnyereg, the issue is funding. They don't have enough money to hire enough lawyers to fill the need. As an unemployed part of the glut, believe me, I'd love to work for a legal services place if they were hiring.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:47 PM on September 30, 2009

My parents were both legal aid attornies. My brother is brilliant and an insanely hard worker. After college and a year out he decided he wanted to go to law school. He did something that almost no one does, which is apply to a whole range of law schools, and go to the best one that would leave him with no debt at graduation, because of lower tuition, merit-based aid, etc. In effect, this meant going to a small top-50 law school near home rather than a top-10 law school that would have left him 100k plus in the hole.

He spent the summer working for legal aid instead of for a firm, and now when he graduates he can take a job getting justice for poor people that pays 30-40k rather than having to go for a soul-crushing firm job.

Mostly I just want to brag about my brother, but I think there's a larger lesson here that relates to this sad but good fpp. Our legal education system is designed so that the best and brightest are under enormous cultural and economic pressure to get jobs that do nothing to solve the problems described here. That's something we should try to change.
posted by sy at 7:07 PM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

orrnyereg, the issue is funding. They don't have enough money to hire enough lawyers to fill the need. As an unemployed part of the glut, believe me, I'd love to work for a legal services place if they were hiring.

I think the "resume-polishing" bit might also apply to pro-bono/volunteer work or along those lines. There are a glut of unemployed attorneys who could put their skills to use helping people in this situation until they find paying jobs.

Ultimately, there does need to be a fundamental shift in the system to accommodate everyone in need of legal services, but more attorneys donating their time can't be a bad start.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:39 PM on September 30, 2009

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