Poor Americans Face Significant Barriers to Justice, Study Finds

Less than one legal aid attorney is available for every ten thousand poor people across the country, a report from the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School finds.

According to the 2016 edition of the Justice Index, fewer than seven thousand civil legal aid attorneys are available for the nearly 110 million Americans eligible for free legal assistance. The study also found that Americans who are not proficient in English have a harder time finding an attorney, while nearly half the states in the country do not require that a certified interpreter be provided for people facing any number of life-changing court cases, including domestic violence, custody and child support, foreclosure, public and subsidized housing cases, debt collection, and divorce.

In addition, the study found that only twelve states require court staff to tell citizens that their court fees can be waived if they can't afford to pay, discouraging many from bringing rightful claims and sometimes preventing them from defending against wrongful claims; forty-five states fail to provide properly trained employees to assist people with mental illness in court; and ten states have not established the right to an attorney in cases involving guardianship due to mental health issues.

On a more positive note, the report found that a growing focus on and improved access in a small number of states are providing a path for other states to follow. The former include Massachusetts, Hawai'i, Maryland, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. Many states also are pursuing common-sense and innovative reforms designed to help poor Americans in civil cases — including allowing lawyers to "unbundle" certain legal tasks for low-income clients (44 states); authorizing judges (23 states) and court staff (32 states) to take steps to help people without lawyers to represent themselves; funding the creation of "self-help centers" to aid those representing themselves (20 states); encouraging the use of plain English in the courtroom rather than legalese (20 states); adopting digital e-filing of court forms (44 states); grouping together all court forms on a single, easy-to-navigate webpage (44 states); training judges to work with interpreters (32 states); and providing translated court forms on court web sites (30 states).

"The Justice Index drives a national conversation about how to deliver on one of the core promises we make to each other as Americans: that everyone must be equal before the law. By relying on data and technology, the Justice Index shows where the best laws, rules, and polices are in place," said NCAJ executive director David Udell. "By ranking leading and trailing states, the Justice Index builds in incentives for every state to do better."