High price of justice in the United States

Sunday, 17 July 2016 11:08 GMT

Chip East / Reuters

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the United States, pro bono legal professionals continue to innovate and expand the delivery of services to the poor. More legal services organizations are hiring full-time pro bono attorneys and more law firms are recruiting professionals to manage their legal volunteer activities. All are working more collaboratively to streamline the delivery of legal services to the poor with the result that more clients are being served.

At the same time, detailed eligibility criteria have been established, including for non-profit organizations, small businesses, social enterprises and those on low incomes.

Despite these advances, however, civil legal aid programs still reflects less than 1 percent of legal expenditures in the United States, and pro bono services still account for less than 1 percent of lawyers' working hours. Furthermore, reports from state Access to Justice Commissions consistently reveal that fewer than 20 percent of poor people have access to a lawyer in civil cases.

In the case of Griffin v Illinois, in 1956, the Supreme Court observed: “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has."  

During the six decades since that case was decided, U.S. courts and pro bono lawyers have consistently confronted the reality of that observation, and they have repeatedly failed to address it. These failures have occurred in multiple dimensions.

Courts have declined to recognize a right to appointed counsel in civil cases except under very limited circumstances. In the civil and criminal cases where courts have recognized the right to assistance, they have failed to ensure that representation meets acceptable standards. Legislatures have imposed substantive and financial restrictions that have limited the legal services available to the poor.

This situation offers a compelling call to action, particularly for large law firms that serve as professional and community leaders.

We must lead the way by contributing much more funding to legal services organizations, and we must be among the loudest voices calling for funding to initiatives that deliver counsel to all the poor people in our communities. This will level the playing field, change the reality of a justice system that does not serve everyone and perhaps finally begin to realize the slogan that appears above so many of our courts – justice for all.