Kennedy Op/Ed: Providing equal access to justice for all
A young single mom diagnosed with breast cancer whose employer fired her after she asked for time off to continue chemotherapy treatments. A grandmother facing the loss of her family home and the shelter it provides for her kids and grandkids. An African-American nurse who objected to racist and discriminatory treatment at work and was fired.
These stories, and hundreds more like them, are the mission of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, a legal aid organization providing free representation and legal services to low-income families across the region. During a visit this summer, I heard about their efforts to help local folks facing everything from foreclosure and bankruptcy to domestic violence and homelessness.
These advocates face an uphill battle from the moment they get a case. A consistent struggle to secure funding has stretched organizations like SCCLS to the brink. Due to lack of resources, SCCLS estimates that it has approximately one attorney available for every 6,500 people across the Cape and SouthCoast that may qualify for their assistance. The challenges quickly multiply. Poverty can compound legal problems, meaning many of the people SCCLS serves are facing myriad difficulties. Language, technology and transportation all create additional barriers, making it nearly impossible for low-income families to access legal services, regardless of the price tag.
These are challenges I saw firsthand as a student attorney in my law school legal aid clinic. Working in the housing court that covered some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, fear and uncertainty clouded the faces of every client I met. Oftentimes these individuals found themselves in court through no fault of their own; fighting to protect an apartment they had faithfully paid rent on each month because their landlord couldn’t keep up with mortgage payments and the lender was threatening to kick everyone out. Standing next to them, I saw our justice system through their eyes: an endless and impossible maze, built only for people who could afford to hire expensive lawyers to lead them through it.
Across the country, low and middle-income Americans struggle through this maze every day. While our justice system generally guarantees access to an attorney for anyone facing criminal charges, that promise does not extend to civil matters. And civil cases make up the bulk of legal challenges most American families are likely to face, including eviction, bankruptcy, health care disputes, workplace discrimination, child custody battles, restraining orders, divorce and domestic violence. As a result, many of our most vulnerable citizens are forced to walk into courtrooms and attempt to navigate our legal system completely alone — usually facing opponents with more money, more power, and more connections.
Those things aren’t supposed to matter in the United States justice system. But by failing to ensure everyone has access to legal services and fair representation, we’ve tipped our sacred scales in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, national organizations like the Legal Services Corporation and essential local advocates like SCCLS, MetroWest Legal Services, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Boston Bar Association — just to name a few — have stepped up and helped fill the gaps, matching qualified lawyers with clients who need help most.
However, due to a lack of resources and funding, those organizations are forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts residents desperately searching for legal assistance. Nationally those numbers are no better; it’s estimated that only one-fifth of low-income Americans receive the civil legal aid they need and deserve.
That lack of representation has a real, concrete impact on the outcome of those cases and the lives of our most vulnerable citizens. When clients walk into courtrooms facing eviction without a lawyer, two-thirds of them lose their home. Conversely, of the families and individuals with legal representation, two-thirds keep theirs.
Today the number of Americans living below the poverty line is higher than ever before. Despite that, federal funding for civil legal aid, specifically for LSC, is a consistent target for cuts. Taking inflation into account, the amount of funding provided in 2013 was the lowest it has ever been in the nearly 40 year history of the LSC. And while we’ve seen modest gains since then, House Republicans just passed a spending bill that would gut current funding levels by an additional $75 million.
The wreckage of the economic collapse has left our country wrestling with powerful and pervasive economic inequity. And the federal government’s failure to ensure that low and middle income families have access to representation within our justice system is only compounding the growing divide between those thriving in our modern economy and those being left behind. It’s time for Congress to stand firmly behind increased funding for legal aid and ensure every American is afforded the protections our justice system promises.
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District.