Access to Justice

Access to Justice

Access to Justice

Access to Justice

Synopsis

Equal Justice Under Law. This promise appears on courthouse doors across the land. But it by no means describes what goes on inside them. Equal access to justice is one of America's most proudly proclaimed principles. And one of its most frequently violated. In theory, the United States is deeply committed to individual rights. Yet few Americans can afford the legal representation necessary to exercise them. Only one percent of the nation's lawyers serve our poorest citizens, translating to one lawyer for every 1,400 poor people. The nation with the world's greatest concentration of lawyers has one of the least accessible systems of justice. Written by America's leading expert on legal ethics, Access to Justice vividly chronicles the wide gap between the lofty aspirations and harsh realities of American justice. As Deborah L. Rhode demonstrates, America is overlawyered and underrepresented: there is too much law for those who can afford it and too little for everyone else. Although indigent defendants are entitled to legal representation, what satisfies that standard is an affront to the civilized world, and especially shameful for a nation that considers itself a world leader in human rights. Convictions are regularly upheld when lawyers are asleep, on drugs, mentally incapacitated, or even parking their car during the prosecution's case. The justice system is not only inaccessible for the poor; it is increasingly out of reach for the American middleclass as well. Rhode's analysis also includes on the first comprehensive national study of lawyers' charitable pro bono work ever conducted, encompassing some 3,000 attorneys. The average lawyer, she finds, contributes less than half an hour a week and fifty cents a day in support of representation for those who cannot afford it. Access to Justice avoids both simplistic lawyer-bashing and liberal lament. Rhode outlines what could and should be done to curb frivolous litigation, but focuses her attention squarely on the far greater problem of unnecessary expense and unaffordable remedies. A scathing indictment of America's legal status quo, Access to Justice presents no mere manifesto but a reasoned and realistic agenda for lasting reform.

Excerpt

“Equal justice under law” is one of America’s most proudly proclaimed and widely violated legal principles. It embellishes courthouse entrances, ceremonial occasions, and constitutional decisions. But it comes nowhere close to describing the legal system in practice. Millions of Americans lack any access to justice, let alone equal access. According to most estimates, about four-fifths of the civil legal needs of the poor, and two- to three-fifths of the needs of middle-income individuals, remain unmet. Government legal aid and criminal defense budgets are capped at ludicrous levels, which make effective assistance of counsel a statistical impossibility for most low-income litigants. We tolerate a system in which money often matters more than merit, and equal protection principles are routinely subverted in practice.

This is not, of course, the only legal context in which rhetoric outruns reality. But it is one of the most disturbing, given the fundamental rights at issue. A commitment to equal justice is central to the legitimacy of democratic processes. And many nations come far closer than our own to realizing this ideal in practice. It is a shameful irony that the country with the world’s most lawyers has one of the least adequate systems for legal assistance. It is more shameful still that the inequities attract so little concern. Over the last two decades, national spending on legal aid has been cut by a third, and increasing restrictions have been placed on the clients and causes that government-funded programs can represent. Groups that are the most politically vulnerable are now the most legally vulnerable as well. Federally funded programs may not take cases involving the “unworthy” poor, defined expansively to in-

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