Justice for All? Legal Services Cuts
The images coming out of Pakistan three years ago that appeared on the front pages of newspapers were unforgettable (see some here): thousands of lawyers, neatly groomed and dressed in suits, demonstrating in the streets of Lahore—some engaging in violent clashes with the police who sought to quash the demonstrations, others braving vicious beatings—first to protest the dismissal of the chief justice in Pakistan, then later to oppose the suspension of Pakistan’s Constitution. As the New York Times wrote of the later protest, “At one point, lawyers and police officers clashed in a pitched battle, with lawyers standing on the roof of the High Court throwing stones at the police below, and the police hurling them back. Some of the lawyers were bleeding from the head, and some passed out in clouds of tear gas.” These lawyers saw themselves as properly on the front line when it came to defending the rule of law.
In contrast, the U.S. bar has largely been silent when it comes to the drastic cuts proposed to the budget of the Legal Services Corporation The plan of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is to cut $75 million from Legal Services’ budget—18 percent of Legal Services’ total budget. Yet Legal Services is the only broad-based program for serving the legal needs of the poor, and 80% of those needs already go unmet under its current funding. As a routine matter, poor Americans have no access to counsel in cases dealing with important issues like child custody, housing, employment, health care, and so forth. Very often that makes a difference in whether these citizens can sue at all; even when they get into court, they generally cannot effectively exercise their rights without a lawyer. Our system stands in stark contrast to countries in the European Union, where the access to counsel in civil cases is a right. It is because of the lack of real access to justice by low-income Americans that the World Justice Project recently ranked the United States – the wealthiest nation in the world – as last of 11 wealthy countries when it comes to access to civil justice – behind not only EU countries, but even South Korea and
Japan. The proposed cuts to Legal Services, in combination with the increased numbers of citizens struggling from the recession, would move the number of Americans who can’t vindicate important legal rights still higher.
For many poor Americans, the lack of access to counsel effectively precludes them from justice every bit as much as the suspension of the rule of law affected and continues to affect Pakistani citizens. Although we still teach our law students about the importance of the rule of law, as my colleague, Gene Nichol, wrote in an op-ed earlier this week, our current system makes a mockery of the idea of equal justice for all citizens. Is it time to hit the streets?