According to a recent study, two-thirds of low income residents who seek legal help are turned away. James Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency that finances legal aid groups, civil legal needs are met only about 20 percent of the time for low-income families in America.
The Massachusetts study on legal aid highlights that a large increase in state funding would be a smart investment. Inadequate legal aid has significant consequences. The study concludes that the state could potentially save money in other services such as emergency shelter, healthcare, foster care and law enforcement. Moreover, cases would be handled more quickly and this would be especially beneficial for victims of domestic violence since it would help avoid large medical and other costs.
It is ironic that despite an increase in people without legal aid (or adequate legal aid), the congressional funding for Legal Services Corporation has actually been reduced to $365 million this year as compared to $420 million in 2010. This could have diverse effects on the system since the population below 125 percent of the poverty line is increasing and the number of people in need of legal aid is higher than ever.
A large number of people who do not qualify for legal aid have no option but to represent themselves. This would be effective if the legal system was friendlier with simple procedures but since that is not the case, it is difficult for the general population to defend themselves without assistance from lawyers.
According to Cassandra Goodman, the supervising lawyer at the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, lawyers can make a vital difference. This is especially true for immigrants who are not completely fluent in the language and become intimidated by seasoned lawyers and bewildering paperwork. They have no hope of defending themselves against eviction, high rents, and domestic violence or in child custody disputes.
Several alternatives have popped up in light of the system’s failure to provide legal assistance to the poor. The Eviction Assistance Center is a legal aid office and is part of an experiment by the California courts to provide legal advice and lawyers to low-income people. There is the Neighbourhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County that is funded by the Shriver Project and is providing full or partial assistance to tenants who are facing eviction.
There are similar ongoing projects in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere but are working toward helping needy clients but there is still a justice gap that needs to be filled and that definitely requires attention.