Jim Harbaugh went to the United States Senate in Washington D.C. last week. He was not there to filibuster, but to deliver prepared remarks at a Congressional briefing.
“Many of you are probably wondering why a football coach is speaking at an event like this. I may be a football coach, but I am an American first and foremost — and all Americans should care about equal access to justice.”
Harbaugh, a member of the Legal Services Corporation’s Leaders Council, was addressing what has been called the “Justice Gap,” which is the difference between the legal needs of average Americans and their ability to afford it. Most Americans end up in court. It might be for a divorce, child custody, rental housing, disability or simply a traffic ticket. A survey by NORC at the University of Chicago established more than 7 out of 10 low income households had experienced a civil legal problem in the past year.
Hiring an attorney is not cheap. The just released “economics of law practice survey” by the State Bar of Michigan suggests hiring a lawyer costs the average individual somew
here between $158.00 and $304.00 per hour, depending upon where they live.
Given legal economics, most individuals, unlike large businesses that have contracts with law firms, have little negotiating power when it comes to hourly rates. In a civil case, which could take thousands of hours to get to trial, these rates can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
For low income households this is not merely prohibitive, it is completely unaffordable. As a result, only 20 percent of low income families are able to find an attorney to assist with their legal needs.
Low income households are quite diverse. The five largest groups that most often need legal assistance are senior citizens, veterans, people with disabilities, the working poor with children under 18, survivors of domestic violence and the rural poor. Each group has its own legal needs.
Example of Injustice
Take one example: Jason Doss, an unemployed father. Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency seized 25 percent percent of his unemployment check based upon a claim that he defrauded the state. Until it was revealed that the claim was based upon an computer error, Doss could do little more complain to the state and pay. He did not have the resources to fight a false claim.
The Conference of Chief Justices, an organization representing the chief justices of all the states and territories of the United States, just issued a report entitled “CALL TO ACTION: Achieving Civil Justice for All”. In that report the Chief Justices report: “Research also shows that some litigants with meritorious claims and defenses are effectively denied access to justice because it is beyond their financial means to litigate”.
Part of the job for filling this justice gap has fallen to the Legal Service Corporation. The 133 LSC-funded legal aid organizations in the United States, like Michigan Legal Services, will help an estimated 1 million low-income Americans in 2017. However, President Donald Trump’s budget has proposed the elimination of funding for 2018.
Unrepresented individuals in the courtroom pose inherent problems: They cause delays and as a result, increase administrative expenses. They are often unprepared or unable to focus on actual issues, which delays the court’s schedule.
Their lack of courtroom knowledge can undermine a judge’s’ ability to maintain impartiality and the resulting imbalance may create a sense that the system is not fair.
As Coach Harbaugh testified: “The issue is about fairness, fundamental fairness. As I see it, if you have money, you have access to justice. If you don’t have money, you have less access to justice. That’s not the way it should work….”I challenge our lawmakers to take meaningful action towards narrowing the justice gap between those that can afford it and those that cannot.”
As a long time Spartan fan I never thought I was say this, but it’s time to join Coach Harbough’s team. Call your Representative and ask them to support an increase in funding for the Legal Service Corporation.
This blog posting was first published in Deadline Detroit. Reprinted with permission.