Too many Pennsylvanians face their legal troubles alone
Imagine being suddenly unable to make your monthly mortgage payment because of an unexpected illness that prevents you from working. With no resources to obtain disability benefits that could help with your payments, you end up receiving foreclosure papers on the only home you know.
What most people don't know is that Pennsylvanians who cannot afford a lawyer for these most basic legal problems do not have the right to one. They must make their way through the legal system alone and face a frightening, confusing universe, one in which the rules are unknown and the risk is unimaginable: losing a home or a child, for example, or being in danger of personal harm.
As the legislature gets serious about budget negotiations this month, our elected officials must confront this issue.
A report released last month by the Pennsylvania Civil Legal Justice Coalition to the state Senate Judiciary Committee highlights a growing crisis in the state's justice system. There are a staggering number of unrepresented low-income litigants unable to get legal aid when facing life-changing situations, such as domestic violence, unlawful eviction, or loss of veterans' health or disability benefits. They are left to navigate complex legal situations on their own - and risk losing their families, homes, and livelihoods in the process. Even with the growth of pro bono representation by lawyers in private firms, 80 percent of the critical legal needs of low-income Pennsylvanians go unmet.
In "Toward Equal Justice for All: Report of the Civil Legal Justice Coalition," live testimony, written statements, and studies presented at three statewide hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year comprehensively document that the lack of representation for low-income, unrepresented litigants negatively affects the courts' administration and undermines the rule of law. The report concludes that increased civil legal aid is needed to ensure fairness for all in the justice system, help streamline the court system, and cut down on costs.
The report goes on to highlight significant social and economic downsides that may not be apparent to the average citizen.
A recent economic impact study found that for every additional dollar spent on legal aid in Pennsylvania, there is an $11 return to the state and its residents. Investing in civil legal aid saves money in the long run.
The unmet need for legal aid costs the state money and hurts taxpayers to the tune of millions by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence, and exacerbating other social maladies. These include unemployment, disruption of children's education and family stability, and dislocation due to evictions and foreclosures that might have been avoided.
Sustained and severe cuts in government funding for legal services and a decline in other sources of funding have led many legal aid agencies across the state to close offices, lay off staff, and cut back dramatically the number of clients served. This funding crisis has been all the more devastating given that the number of Pennsylvanians needing legal representation but unable to pay for it has grown to record highs.
The Civil Legal Justice Coalition recommends that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court form an Access to Justice Commission to develop and implement practical and effective ways to expand access and increase resources and funding to address these dire needs. This recommended approach has a proven track record in that 34 states already have such commissions.
Next, the coalition has called on the legislature to appropriate an additional $50 million each year for civil legal services. Given the expected social and economic benefits, this expense is likely to be recouped in the long term, with a net gain to taxpayers.
Finally, we recommend that Pennsylvania work toward establishing a right to counsel in civil legal matters in which fundamental needs are at stake, such as safety, health, child custody, and housing.
We urge readers to contact their legislators and voice support for increased civil legal aid and a civil right to counsel in Pennsylvania. We need to ensure justice for all, not just those who can afford it.
Jennifer R. Clarke, Samuel W. Milkes, and James W. Creenan are cochairs of the Pennsylvania Civil Legal Justice Coalition (www.pilcop.org).