Access to Civil Justice: Is There a Solution?

Article excerpt

Pro bono efforts can help ensure access to legal assistance for all members of society.

Equal justice for all is the cornerstone of democracy and forms the fabric of our society. In order for our justice system to be truly accessible to all, the enforcement of our laws-which govern everything from economic relationships to the most personal and family matters-must be within the grasp of every citizen, not just the wealthy. Without meaningful access, the law simply becomes an unfulfilled promise.

Despite all of the efforts to address access-to-justice issues over the last several decades, the demand for legal services has consistently outweighed the limited resources. Thus, the lack of access to legal services by the poor continues to be a major social problem. Moreover, for the increasing number of immigrants who have come to the U.S. in recent years, the problem of access to justice has been compounded by issues pertaining to language barriers, cultural differences, and difficulties associated with assimilating into the mainstream of American life. These individuals, as well as those with disabilities, are just as vulnerable as the poor in terms of finding access to legal services.

The last in-depth assessment of the civil legal needs of low- and moderate-income people in Hawaii-referred to as "The Spandenberg Report," which was completed in June 1993-revealed a "serious level of unmet legal needs among both low income families and gap group families," that is, families whose incomes are too high to qualify for free civil legal services, yet too low to afford market rate legal assistance. The report indicated that only 9.6 percent of low-income families in Hawaii receive legal assistance for their civil legal problems. Admittedly, this assessment was done more than 10 years ago, and some may believe another assessment is needed to determine an accurate picture of our current situation. I submit, however, that another assessment will likely tell us what we already know by simply looking at the growing immigrant population in Hawaii and the increasing number of pro se litigants appearing in our courts at all levels-parties representing themselves because they simply cannot afford to hire an attorney. I firmly believe that another legal needs assessment survey will lead to only one conclusion-that the problem regarding access to civil justice has gotten worse.

Sadly, low-income and gap group families are not getting the help they need with ordinary, but nonetheless essential, legal matters. I am speaking about such fundamental matters as securing promised government benefits, finding housing, getting a divorce, assisting an aging parent, obtaining unemployment insurance or workers' compensation benefits, handling medical emergencies or serious illnesses, or-worst of all-finding safety and refuge from domestic violence and child or sex abuse. The irony, of course, is that: those who are most disadvantaged and least empowered simply do not have the means to access the very things that might, in some circumstances, turn their situations around or at least improve them.

To quote the Honorable Learned Hand, "If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Ration Justice." Unfortunately, rationing appears to be the cumulative net effect of having a legal and judicial system that is overburdened and underfunded. Indeed, if we could secure consistent, full funding for our judicial system and for legal services programs, many problems could be solved. But, as you know, the reality of that happening in the foreseeable future is slim in light of our still fragile economy and the competing interests of many other types of service programs. We, therefore, continue to look for solutions elsewhere, Is there a solution? My answer is: YES!

A joint responsibility

Meeting the civil justice needs of poor and vulnerable people is a joint responsibility of both the public and private sectors. …