Let’s put it plainly: our courts should not aspire to provide access to justice. They should aspire to provide justice. Access to justice is a very low bar, so low that we can’t expect justice from a system that aspires merely to provide access.
This year’s Justice Index is out. It’s the annual report from the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) that ranks the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico on a series of civil court access measures. Each jurisdiction was ranked in four areas: the number of legal aid lawyers for people in poverty, support for self-represented litigants, translation services for non-English speakers, and support for people with disabilities.
DC topped the list overall, excelling in legal aid services for people in poverty. The District was followed closely by Massachusetts, Hawaii and Maryland, excelling respectively in support to the self-represented, language translation services, and courthouse disability services. Residents of Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Wyoming had the least access to justice, according to the annual ranking.
Despite progress, the statistics are depressing. There’s 1 legal aid lawyer on average for every 15,625 people living in poverty. That’s fewer than 7,000 attorneys for the 110 million people eligible for free legal assistance. Half the states allow courts to charge litigants and witnesses for language interpreters. The typical state scored 60% in providing courthouse services to those with physical or mental disabilities.
The average score for support to self-represented litigants was 48%. These are basic measures like dedicating a courthouse employee to serve people without lawyers, allowing and training judges to help people representing themselves, funding self-help centers to provide assistance with forms and procedures, and things as simple as counting the number of self-represented litigants in the courts. To repeat, states averaged a score of 48% on these measures.
What’s the solution for the millions of people who find themselves in court each year?
Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, had this to say about the justice system:
The court system remains a system that was designed by lawyers with the expectation that there would be lawyers… Most people don’t have representation and yet it’s still a system that very much contemplates that they will.
But in South Carolina, the state ranked last in providing legal aid, there’s 1 lawyer for every 42,000 eligible poor people. Getting a legal aid lawyer is like buying the winning Lotto ticket. It’s not something you can bank on when you’re in a fix.
Part of the problem is ridiculously low federal and state funding for legal aid positions. Every survey shows outcomes are better when people who need a lawyer get one. But the reality is that conservative legislatures and stretched court budgets are not going to fund lawyers for poor people.
The legal profession and the courts want to solve the crisis. Aside from good hearts and progressive instincts, these stats on access to justice are a national embarrassment that reflects badly on them.
But we can’t wait on lawyers to open the courthouse doors. We — the people directly affected — have to do it ourselves. We are losing property and rights everyday, from unjust evictions and foreclosures to valid claims we’re unable to pursue due to complicated procedures designed for lawyers.
We need educational resources to help us understand civil litigation and civil procedure. We need online technologies to help us prepare and file legal documents. We need places to share our experiences with each other, to help each other analyze and navigate our cases.
That’s the solution we’re building and offering with Case Manager. Those of us involved in litigation can’t count on winning the lottery with a lawyer, but we can learn to represent ourselves effectively.
What’s your experience with the courts? Are things getting better, worse, or staying the same? Share in the comments below.