Last month marked 800 years since the restless barons of England challenged King John to relinquish his claim of “Divine Right” and submit to the rule of law by signing the Magna Carta. Our legal legacy flows from that moment, through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, to our own American Revolution and Constitution and later, the creation of Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
The touchstone of this progression is that the law, at its most basic level, is about fairness and justice for all. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts and around the country, equal justice for all is still just an aspiration for many―not a reality. This is especially true in civil cases, where low-income litigants often face trials and administrative hearings without the advice or representation of an attorney. While those accused of committing a crime have a right to an attorney, people facing non-criminal legal issues related to some of life’s most basic rights and protections—safe shelter, fair employment, freedom from discrimination, and access to health care, to name a few—have no such right. As Martha Bergmark, Executive Director of the national organization Voices for Civil Justice, herself a former legal aid attorney, recently put it in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Many people suffer crushing losses in court not because they’ve done something wrong, but simply because they don’t have legal help.”
Civil legal aid exists to bridge this justice gap and protect the most vulnerable among us, providing free legal advice and representation to people living at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or $30,313 a year for a family of four.
Civil legal aid exists to bridge this justice gap and protect the most vulnerable among us, providing free legal advice and representation to people living at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or $30,313 a year for a family of four. Civil legal assistance touches matters of housing, employment, domestic violence, and family law. It has the potential to change people’s lives, helping them stay in their homes and at their jobs and access health coverage, education and other benefits to which they are entitled.
Despite being a critical resource for low-income individuals and families across the Commonwealth, civil legal aid is woefully underfunded. Investing in Justice, a report by the Boston Bar Association (BBA) Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts found that, in 2014, 64 percent of residents eligible for civil legal aid who sought services were turned away by legal aid programs that lacked the resources to serve them. Likewise, nationally, more than half of those who qualify for civil legal aid are turned away from services for lack of resources, according “Documenting the Justice Gap in America,” a report by the Legal Services Corporation.
This is not just the result of cumulative budget cuts to government funding of civil legal aid and dwindling interest on trust accounts (known as IOLTA funding) which contributes funding to civil legal aid programs. It’s also due to the overwhelming lack of support from the nation’s largest and most profitable law firms. In its cover story “How Big Law Is Failing Legal Aid” The American Lawyer last month detailed how leading law firms contribute a miniscule 0.1% of their revenues to civil legal aid funding, favoring other charities and causes instead. An editorial accompanying the article summarized the problem thusly: “Legal aid is the ugly duckling of charities. There’s no celebrity spokesman. No puppies or radiant children. No viral videos promoting an ice-bucket challenge.
“There’s just that deer-in-the-headlights look of millions of poor Americans who face child support hearings, custody fights, evictions and more without a clue about how to navigate the courts and without the benefit of counsel,” wrote editor-in-chief Kim Kleman. “And that sorry look hasn’t translated into sufficient donations for legal aid.”
Meanwhile, the collective revenue of the top 200 law firms in the country surpassed the $100 billion mark last year.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts recently approved a $2 million increase in funding of civil legal aid programs in the state. As we wait to see if Gov. Baker will approve this increase, and await the response to The American Lawyer’s devastating report, I am reminded of what former President Jimmy Carter once said about the founding of this country, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”
We are the first and most successful experiment in self-government, whose foundation is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Though they comprise thousands of words, the heart of both documents can be found in the ideal of equal justice for all. That is what we stand for, and it is what we should speak up for as well, be it in the halls of government or in the boardrooms of our most prestigious law firms.
John Carroll is an attorney at Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow. He is Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition.