We all watch enough Law and Order, CSI Miami or the latest hot and trending police show at the moment to know the basics of how the criminal justice system works. Blah, blah, blah, you have a right to an attorney, right? Wrong. Not only does that only qualify for criminal cases, but as the numbers of Americans below the poverty line increases, the number who gets adequate legal services decreases. I don’t know about you, but I sure didn’t know that.
Here I was naively thinking that as Americans we all, regardless of demographics, had a right to an attorney and a fair trial. But truth is, without a competent attorney beside you, there is no fair trial. Who would have known this constitutional right was only reserved for criminals? Seriously, who was the genius behind that idea? No constitutional right exists in civil cases, which is where the majority of the poor are facing problems.
Civil cases are just as important and have the potential of being life-altering, yet millions of poor Americans are being left alone to deal with the cumbersome problem of representing themselves or having overworked, free legal aid in cases such as spousal abuse, eviction, child custody and consumer fraud.
In the article “Legal Aid Crisis: Do the Poor Have Adequate Access to Legal Services?” by Barbara Mantel, Mantel states that government-financed, legal-aid programs that have long helped fill the gap are also being affected by the weak economy and that pressures on state and federal budgets are putting these programs at risk.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a nonprofit that distributes federal funding to civil legal-aid programs nationwide, is one of the many programs that may face steep budget cuts in Congress, while some conservatives want to end the program altogether.
Again, here is another example of how when the economy is in crisis, the most beneficial programs for the average Joe get cut first (i.e. school funding and free legal-aid programs). In April, Congress cut federal funding for the LSC by 3.8 percent to $404.2 million for the fiscal year. The LSC could continue to suffer cuts in 2012 as conservative House Republicans battle for across-the-board reductions in federal spending.
With more than one in seven Americans living below the poverty line and unable to afford a lawyer, budget cuts in this area of government aid should not even be considered. Instead, the nation’s 1 million private lawyers should be required to provide free legal help to the poor because self-representation and self-help centers aren’t getting the job done.
Former President Jimmy Carter said in 1977, “Ninety percent of our lawyers serve 10 percent of our people. We are over-lawyered and underrepresented.” Thirty-four years later and these words still hold truth.
If each law firm required lawyers to do a certain amount of hours per week for the needy, the workload to help the poor would be divided equally and more people under the poverty line would get represented. Some argue that taking the choice out of pro bono work is wrong and amounts to indentured servitude, but why are these lawyers in business if not to help people? Did they become lawyers to help the rich get richer? To screw over the little guy? Or to seek justice in the justice system?
In a world so consumed with money, consumption and greed, as well as filled with people who only take action as long as there’s something in it for them, we often lose sight of the simpler things in life. Lawyers should make those long years in law school count toward the greater good. No one is asking them to quit getting paid to do their job. We’re just asking them to give back to a community in need.