The need for legal assistance in civil matters is overwhelming. Many Americans cannot afford to hire attorneys; still, individuals who seek support from Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funded legal aid organizations are often turned away due to a lack of staff and funding and go through civil disputes without the assistance of legal counsel. LSC recently released an important and far-reaching report, The Justice Gap 2022: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, assessing the civil justice issues faced by low-income Americans.
On April 28, 2022, LSC invited many notable speakers to offer reflections on the report via Facebook Live. Speakers included U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Head Football Coach of the University of Michigan Jim Harbaugh, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Tim Kaine, Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, Congressman Tom Emmer, and Co-Chairs of LSC’s Leaders Council Harriet Miers, Chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Partner, Locke Lord LLP, and Kenneth C. Frazier, Executive Chairman of Merck’s Board of Directors.
John G. Levi, Chairman, Board of Directors, Legal Services Corporation, Partner, Sidley Austin LLP, explained that the 2022 report examines the Justice Gap in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a disproportionate effect on low-income Americans. The study further breaks down the analysis to focus on seniors, veterans, children, survivors of domestic violence, people in rural areas, and those with high housing costs. The findings of this report are sobering; low-income Americans do not receive any or enough legal help for 92% of their substantial civil problems.
The current study also found that the Civil Legal Problems among low-income Americans are widespread, with nearly 75% of those households experiencing at least one problem of significance in the past year and almost 40% experiencing five or more. Not surprisingly, the report found that LSC’s 132 organizations do not have the resources to meet the demand in the communities they serve, turning away half of the requests they receive. Even when they can provide some assistance, they only have the resources to fully resolve slightly more than half of those matters.
Unfortunately, chronic underfunding of LSC has helped to fuel this crisis. In 1994, Congress appropriated $400 million for LSC. Since that time, LSC’s appropriation has increased only slightly to $489 million in 2022, which is not remotely enough to keep up with inflation, much less the increased demand and need for services resulting from population growth, recessions, disasters, and a pandemic that have occurred during the last three decades and adjust adjusted for inflation. As such, for 2022, the LSC board unanimously seeks $126 billion in funding from Congress. Another finding in the Justice Gap report illustrates why significantly increased funding is crucial. Only 28% of low-income Americans believe that people like them are likely to be treated fairly in the US Civil Justice System.
Levi quoted the first Republican director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Don Rumsfeld, who stated, “[w]e cannot expect respect for the rule of law if we, as public officials, do not assure access to the legal process. To fail to do so would break faith with those Americans—rich and poor alike—who have confidence in our legal institutions and the notion that disputes are better resolved in courtrooms than on street corners.”
He noted the recently confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, echoed those very same sentiments in her 2021 commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, saying, “the rule of law to which we are committed cannot flourish unless the legal system is fair and open to all, and that means that everyone is entitled to have effective representation of all the things that it could have been engraved above the front door of our highest legal authority. What is standing alone are four words—equal justice under law. That is a stark reminder that equality is a critically important component of our justice system.” Levi noted that the 2022 Justice Gap report flatly demonstrates that the struggle to provide equal access to justice continues with urgency.
Senator Kaine then spoke about how difficult the past two years have been due to COVID, noting that while the pandemic impacted everyone, it did not impact them equally. African Americans and Latinos not only contracted COVID but also lost their lives, jobs, and homes due to COVID at disproportionate rates. He stated that while the last two years were important in terms of civil legal aid, the next two years may be more important in terms of addressing the losses caused by the pandemic.
Senator Cardin stated as an attorney, he is a guardian of our legal system trained to make sure that justice prevails in this country, and as a legislator, he has to make sure that we have the laws to protect everyone in our nation. We do not have equal justice under the law, however, and we need to acknowledge it is our responsibility to address the disparities. Senator Cardin referred to the report, noting that being economically disadvantaged puts you in a much weaker position in terms of justice, and the statistics have gotten worse over the years, not better.
He explained that LSC is the primary avenue for ensuring our legal system works for those who don’t have the resources., but we have fallen dramatically behind. While President Biden’s budget includes a substantial increase for LSC, it likely will not be enough, and they will need to find additional ways to help deal with these issues.
Harbaugh spoke next, offering a piece of advice to our country’s leaders to work together as a team, without criticizing each other, to focus on achieving their goals. He shared that he came from very humble beginnings but was able to capitalize on the opportunities he was presented with and asked everyone to think of those from similar places with kindness by providing opportunities, closing the justice gap, and providing equal access to justice for everyone.
Miers then stated the poor are in dire need of legal services and that the pandemic worsened the situation, increasing not only the burdens on the individuals who are suffering from the impact of COVID but also on the providers because they’ve had to adjust to working remotely and complete all the services that COVID has required. She cited the report, noting that in the past year, one-third of low-income Americans experienced at least one significant civil legal need resulting from the pandemic. More than half of low-income Americans attribute their problems relating to unemployment and eviction to COVID. Additionally, the Justice Gap survey respondents attribute nearly one-third of their income maintenance problems to COVID and the impact of the pandemic.
Miers explained that it’s our most vulnerable who suffer the most and the lack of legal services and the impact of the pandemic, and meeting the legal services needs of the poor is not a liberal or a conservative issue—it is what America promises all of us, justice for all. Miers stated, “[t]his report makes clear that the justice gap is not a blue state problem, it’s not a red state problem, it’s not a rural problem, it’s not an urban problem. It is a problem for all of us living everywhere in this country.” She noted that LSC ever-increasingly relies on bipartisan support and that we need more effort from both sides of the aisle.
Ron Flagg, President of the Legal Services Corporation, reiterated Mier’s sentiments, stating, “[t]he Justice Gap is not a partisan divide. Rather, it reflects our continuing failure to live up to the non-partisan value of equal justice under law. Every tenant in America, every tenant in America is entitled by law to certain rights under the laws of the jurisdictions in which they live.”
When it comes to enforcement of these and countless other legal rights, though, things are not equal as the judicial and administrative systems for enforcing these rights were primarily built by lawyers on the assumption that lawyers would be available to people using the system, but in all too many life-altering cases that assumption proves to be false and the Justice Gap Report must serve to draw attention to this generally ignored truth. The Justice Gap means every day, our neighbors, here and throughout the country, lose their homes unjustly, are subject to domestic violence without protection, or are denied their veterans’ benefits, all too often without the assistance of a lawyer.
Congresswoman Scanlon noted that many of her colleagues simply do not realize how under-resourced legal aid is and how dire the situation is for low-income Americans who can’t get necessary legal assistance. She agrees with Jim Sandman, who recently said it’s a threat to the rule of law to have a system that is so badly failing millions of Americans every year, and that’s why the work that LSC did to report and release the data in this updated Justice Gap study is so important.
She stated that we need every lawmaker to understand that when low-income Americans don’t get adequate legal help for a staggering 92% of the civil legal problems they’re facing, that’s a systemic failure that we need to address, which is why she joined her colleagues again this year in leading a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking for more funding for LSC.
The 2022 Justice Gap study shows that LSC grantees were unable to provide any or enough legal help for almost three-quarters of the problems that low-income Americans brought to their doors. That’s 1.4 million Americans who were left without necessary legal help because we’re funding legal services at 1970s levels. Congresswoman Scanlon said that we now have studies that demonstrate that there’s a strong return on investment for legal aid, particularly in the eviction field, and we should make that case wherever possible and in making that case, we should continue and expand our partnerships with the business community and privately bar to amplify the support for access to justice and legal aid.
Judges Anna Blackburn Rigsby and Loretta Rush, and Rhodia Thomas, Executive Director of MidPenn Legal Services, then participated in a panel discussion about the report and how it could impact people living in poverty in their respective communities.
Representative Tom Emmer offered remarks via video, stating that he takes those immortal lines in the Pledge of Allegiance with liberty and justice for all very seriously, and we have a long road ahead of us as we seek to remedy the growing justice gap in this country. He believes, “[i]n the fight for Basic Civil Legal Assistance, there are no Republicans, and there are no Democrats. This is a non-partisan American struggle and one that we are aged in as a team.”
Associate AG Gupta spoke last, noting that LSC’s work is critical, and study after study has demonstrated that having legal counsel makes an enormous impact on the resolution of civil disputes. She stated, “the core mission of the Justice Department is to ensure equal justice under law, and we all know that this cannot be accomplished without equal access to justice for all, and today’s report is a sobering reminder of how much work we have to do to achieve this goal.”
Last fall, the Attorney General announced that the Justice Department would reinvigorate its role in leading access to justice policy initiatives across the government through the launch of the Office of Access to Justice. They aren’t just relaunching the office but have also been working on a phase strategic growth plan to modernize and expand the office’s work, vision, and scope.
Frazier spoke last, noting his time as Co-Chair of LSC’s Leaders Council has only served to deepen his understanding of the access to justice crisis and allowed him to collaborate with innovative and inspiring leaders across several industries who’ve recognized the importance of equal justice and made it a priority in their work. LSC is dedicated to solving this problem and in this report and in this support of civil legal aid offices across the country, as well as in constant work to raise public awareness of the access to justice issues. He believes that the rule of law and the justice system that embodies that rule of law don’t just belong to lawyers; they belong to each and every American.
He ended by saying, “[t]he long-term health of our nation, our stability, our unity, and our prosperity all depend upon equal justice. As long as this fundamental promise made to all Americans is delivered only to some, our nation cannot succeed and prosper to its highest potential. If we’re all woven together though in this societal fabric, then any of the fabric which is unraveling should be a concern to all of us. This Justice Gap Report illustrates that there are many rips and tears in the increasingly threadbare mantle of equal access to justice. It is imperative that we all must act and keep faith with this core American value.”