non-profit, public interest law, social change

How can we close the justice gap?

I’ve talked about this before, but there is a gaping gap in access to justice in our country. While those accused of a crime are guaranteed a lawyer, people in civil cases are not. Oftentimes, this leads to grossly unfair, unjust and inequitable outcomes for the poor. How is it that those struggling with landlord-tenant issues (think: mold in your apartment, horrifying conditions like rats, pests, etc) and below the poverty line do not have access to a lawyer? Or those struggling with difficult divorce matters? Instead, the poor who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in court are forced to represent themselves, pro se.

An excellent, important editorial in the NYT, “Addressing the Justice Gap,” touches upon this point — and makes me so glad that people are talking about this issue:

 Experts estimate that four-fifths of low-income people have no access to a lawyer when they need one. Research shows that litigants representing themselves often fare less well than those with lawyers. This “justice gap” falls heavily on the poor, particularly in overburdened state courts.

And though there is a need for legal aid attorneys — there is simultaneously a difficult legal market for law grads. Only 2/3 of law graduates in 2010 got legal jobs. So how can we harness the passion of young lawyers and improve access to justice in civil cases, for the poor? The article lays out several solutions:

The Legal Services Corporation, created by Congress, gives out federal grants that provide the bulk of support for legal aid to the poor. Over the decades, that budget has shrunk — it was $404 million in 2011, about one-third less than it was 15 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The House Appropriations Committee has proposed reducing that to $300 million for 2012. The cut would be devastating; the budget should, instead, be increased.

Half of the people who seek help from legal aid offices are already turned away. Some offices are so understaffed that they must engage in triage, so that in, say, domestic abuse cases, they will only assist someone seeking a restraining order against a violent partner if that person is in immediate danger of being hurt again.

State bar associations could help address these needs by requiring lawyers to report their pro bono service — such disclosure would likely increase many lawyers’ service to the recommended 3 percent to 5 percent of their paid work. Another step is to allow nonlawyers into the mix. The American Bar Association has insisted that only lawyers can provide legal services, but there are many things nonlawyers should be able to handle, like processing uncontested divorces.

Legal education must also change. The Carnegie foundation recommends that all law students be given experience in public advocacy, of which providing legal services is one kind. At the same time, law schools should expand loan forgiveness programs for legal services lawyers. A few have such programs, but most schools do not — and not enough schools view tuition as a source to help support future legal-services lawyers.

In my mind, the largest and most important prescription is to improve loan forgiveness and “LRAP” programs at law schools. Currently, only the top law schools tend to have good loan forgiveness programs, and many law schools simply do not make it possible for people to pay back their exorbitant loans while taking a non-profit or government job.

Law schools need to create programs where those who commit to public interest can get support, mentorship, guaranteed funding to work in public interest over the summer, and most importantly: scholarships.

And at the same time, the demand > supply. As alluded to in the article above, there are not enough jobs to go around in the U.S. even in public interest. Quite simply, we need to increase the number of public interest and legal aid lawyers. This means increased government funding (not cuts!) to legal aid offices, and of course, increased private donations and support for access to justice projects.

We need to increase the supply and the demand so that both coincide. This is not an easy task by any means, but I hope this editorial (and others like it) can bring attention to the issue and start a dialogue around the changes needed in legal education & the legal field to increase the number of public interest lawyers.


2 thoughts on “How can we close the justice gap?”

  1. Tatiana says:

    When I was attending college in NY, there was loan forgiveness for people who majored in education and taught in high risk/low income areas. I thought that was great incentive for young teachers, and it would be great if they offered that for young lawyers too. Actually, this should be a requirement for all public service jobs, like medical school and dentist graduates. This might introduce a more humanitarian aspect of these careers, versus perceiving people as a means to an end. So many services that we need to maintain our lives are only available to the highest earning portions of our population. 

    We need to maintain our bodies and our minds (I think therapist and counselors should also provide similar pro bono services. If I’m not mistaken, many people who are homeless also have some kind of mental or emotional disorder). 

    As a culture, I think it’s important that we provide a more equal opportunity atmosphere for citizens. Which is something that doesn’t presently exist! 

    1. Akhila says:

      Yes, I think it is a great idea — I think there are loan forgiveness for social workers as well, and there is a new federal IBR program for loan forgiveness which is quite good, and helps a lot. I definitely think it would be great for medical and dental school grads as well — I feel like few of them go into community/public health and service and that would be a GREAT benefit for the community.

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