William C. Hubbard, president of the American Bar Association, calls it “the justice gap.”
Deep down, all Americans believe they have a right to their day in court. They probably don’t envision that might mean a day in court with no lawyer on hand to guide them through it. But that’s the reality for an increasing number of people, perhaps one reason the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index ranks the United States only 19th out of 99 countries on access to justice.
“We have an intractable problem in our country, and that is lack of access to our justice system,” Hubbard said this week in a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board while he was in town for the ABA’s annual Section Officers Conference. “Research has shown that 80 percent of the poor in this country do not have access to legal services.”
If they can’t afford a lawyer, people tend not to assert their legal rights or go to court alone, he said.
“In some states … in family court matters, one party or the other is unrepresented in 95 percent of the cases,” said Hubbard, who in summer announced the creation of an ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services to help find ways, especially using technology, to help give more people legal representation.
Most lawyers do provide pro bono work, but compared with the need “we are not moving the needle on the justice gap,” he said.
Much of the problem comes down to money. In other industrialized nations, there tends to be more government funding for legal services. But in America, funding for the Legal Services Corp., which provides civil legal aid for the poor, has been so dramatically cut that half the people who apply for help are turned away, and many who don’t have the money for a lawyer still make too much to qualify for Legal Services aid, he said. For example, a family of four wouldn’t qualify if its combined income was more than $30,000, Hubbard said.
“One congressman said to me once, ‘Well, you need to tell me how giving government money to somebody to go into court is a core function of government’,” Hubbard said. “My response is a simple one. The Preamble to the Constitution says ‘We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice …’ — [it’s] the first item in the preamble of the Constitution. If people don’t have access to that justice, they don’t have justice.”