Neglected in today’s headlines, blogs, and talk radio is a silent, shameful crisis that inflicts suffering and costs the nation money, legitimacy, and decency. Our justice system has become inaccessible to millions of poor people and so every day, we violate the “equal justice under law” motto engraved on the front of the grand United States Supreme Court. Americans who cannot afford legal help routinely forfeit basic rights as a result. Because the law does not enforce itself, veterans seeking benefits the nation has guaranteed, victims of domestic violence needing legal protection, and tenants and homeowners pursuing their rights since the financial disaster all need advisors and guides through the law and its agencies and courts.
Across the country, nonprofit organizations and private law firms offer civil legal aid to those with limited incomes by handling their legal cases. I serve as vice chair of the federal Legal Services Corporation, which also distributes grants to states based on their low-income populations. When this bipartisan federal effort started in 1974 with legislation signed by President Nixon, 12 percent of the population was qualified but today, due to soaring poverty levels, nearly 21 percent of Americans are eligible. Yet the federal contribution has dropped $35 million in the last 20 years.
The problem is not remote: low-income people denied their legal rights live around the corner from you. In Massachusetts, nearly 1 million people qualify for legal aid services. Despite steady funding from the Legislature, and the excellent donation of services and money by lawyers in the Commonwealth, the 15 legal aid organizations supported by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation must turn away some 64 percent of those eligible for help, as the Globe reported recently. This is the finding of the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts on which I served over the last 18 months.
Our task force also found that every dollar spent on legal assistance for low-income individuals returns between $2 and $5 to the Commonwealth in savings to foster care, emergency housing, emergency health care, other social services, and economic growth. We learned how those clients receiving legal help find their lives transformed for the good as their legal rights are enforced. And we learned how other states are finding ways to address the needs of their residents. For example, a task force created by the New York Legislature and led by New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman showed the benefits of civil legal assistance and in recent years New York has more than doubled yearly funding of civil legal assistance, to $70 million. In Tennessee, civic and religious organizations offer legal clinics to help low-income individuals, and public libraries across the country are finding ways to offer low-income people crucial access to online court forms and assistance with legal needs.
Throughout the country, innovations leverage digital technologies, law students and faculties, practicing and retired lawyers, bar associations, libraries, businesses, and public resources, and invent new and better ways to help low-income people navigate courts and agencies so they can stay in their homes, obtain services for which they qualify, keep their children in school, and enjoy the rights that the law says they have. With the talents, innovation, and resources of the Commonwealth, Massachusetts could help lead the way while ensuring that our neighbors have access to equal justice under law.
Martha Minow is dean of Harvard Law School, vice chair of the Legal Services Corporation, and a member of Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.