Image by Steven Depolo
I’m sure that you’re all familiar with birthday campaigns: this one is a little different. For my birthday, coming up on June 1st, I want you to do something for me and a cause that is very important to me. But I’m not asking for money, I’m asking for your voice. Here’s the deal:
Legal services (aka legal aid), is the offering of free legal counsel and services to those who can’t afford an attorney otherwise. Many Americans know this, but they have no idea why it is so important. They might ask, “What’s the big deal? In America, everyone has the right to an attorney” and the answer is that the court only appoints attorneys for those who can’t afford one in criminal cases. In civil cases, that’s not a standard protection. Here are some examples of civil cases:
- A bank forecloses on a house. The family living in the house has no place to go and can’t afford an attorney. Even if the foreclosure is not legally justified, without legal help, they’ll lose their home.
- An abusive parent hires an attorney and gains custody of the children. The non-abusive spouse has no job and no resources to defend his or her claim, leaving the children in the hands of the abusive parent whom he/she divorced to protect the children from.
- An Army Reservist is fired from his or her job. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act protects service people from wrongful termination due to their armed forces commitments, but, without “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to mount a legal defense, what can an unemployed reservist do to address the firing?
These are all examples of common civil cases, and the challenges that our poor and working poor citizens have in accessing the justice for all that is promised in our constitution, our founding principles, and the pledge of allegiance that I remember reciting every school day in my youth (this is a birthday drive — I’m old!).
And, aside from addressing these injustices, consider what highly available legal aid for the poor can do to improve the quality of life in the community. In addition to misunderstanding the need for legal aid, there’s a poor understanding of how legal defense supports many nonprofit causes. Our orgs do great work, but often undervalue the effectiveness of legal solutions in addressing systematic problems like poverty, disease and environmental injustice.
And this is what it boils down to:
Our nation is founded on the right for individuals to defend themselves from persecution. That defense is contingent upon skilled legal advice and representation being available to every American, regardless of circumstance. My employer, Legal Services Corporation, tracks mountains of data on the effectiveness and impact of legal aid providers, and our research tells us that only 20 percent of those who qualify, financially, for legal aid are actually getting legal aid. In the current economy, that translates to millions of people with no access to justice.
So here’s what I want for my birthday: I want you to tell everyone that you know what legal aid is, and why it’s important. Make it clear that civil law lacks the level of protection that criminal law provides, but civil lawsuits can tear apart families, remove basic rights, and make people homeless. Explain that we can’t, as a nation, promote our democracy while we let it flounder, by depriving the increasing number of poverty-level citizens the freedom that our constitution promises. Freedom needs to be constantly defended, and many are deprived of the resources to defend their own.
Blog about this. Tweet it! Post it on Facebook and Google Plus. Link to the resources I’ve provided in the links, or use some of the sample tweets and quotes below.
Most importantly, come back here, or ping me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+, and let me know how it goes. Tell me any good stories you collect about people who really didn’t know, or people who did, and were possibly saved by a legal aid attorney, or desperately needed one and didn’t know where to look.
For my birthday, I want the world to know that, in America, freedom isn’t just a perk for those who can afford an attorney; it’s a right for all. And we still have work to do to secure that right.
Sample Tweets (add more in the comments!):
Right to an attorney not guaranteed in civil cases; homes, families, + jobs are at risk for poor. #just4all
How legal aid saves lives + families: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/us/16gideon.html?_r=2& #just4all
Is legal aid one of your NPO’s strategies? http://publicwelfare.org/NaturalAllies.pdf #just4all
Only 20% of those who need legal assistance receive it: support your local Legal Aid program. #just4all
“Equal access to justice contributes to healthy communities and a vibrant economy. No community thrives when people are homeless, children are out of school, sick people are unable to get health care, or families experience violence. Likewise, when a person’s legal problem is addressed in a timely and effective way, the benefit ripples out and helps that person’s family, neighbors, employer, and community.”— Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia
“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists…it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”— Lewis Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice
“The failure to invest in civil justice is directly related to the increase in criminal disorder. The more people feel there is injustice the more it becomes part of their psyche.”— Wilhelm Joseph
Director, Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland
“But more than anything else, we have learned that legal assistance for the poor, when properly provided, is one of the most constructive ways to help them help themselves.”— President Richard Nixon, 1974
“Equality before the law in a true democracy is a matter of right. It cannot be a matter of charity or of favor or of grace or of discretion.”— U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, sometime in the mid-20th century