CLEVELAND -- There is much discussion today about criminal justice reform, but we cannot ignore the other side of the justice system – our civil justice system. Currently, millions of Americans lack the means to afford counsel in civil cases which impact basic needs, creating a “justice gap” that exacerbates existing socioeconomic divides. We need to close this justice gap.
Everyone is familiar with, “You have the right to an attorney,” thanks to television crime shows. Our Constitution ensures access to no-cost legal counsel when someone is accused of a serious crime and cannot afford an attorney. Yet many do not realize there is no such constitutional right to legal counsel in civil cases, even if losing the case would mean losing shelter, safety, and economic security.
Civil legal aid organizations seek to close the “justice gap” by providing no-cost legal services to people with low incomes who face problems that can be solved by an attorney. At the federal level, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funds these nonprofit law firms with grants, but the need consistently exceeds capacity. According to a recently published report conducted by the LSC, Americans with low incomes did not receive any or enough legal help for a staggering 92% of the civil legal problems that had a substantially negative impact on them in 2021.
And the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this already growing and disturbing trend across the United States’ legal sector. In fact, in 2021, people in the United States brought 1.9 million problems to LSC grantees for legal help — 200,000 more than in 2017.
Why is this all important? Because the “justice gap” is really a gap in the rule of law. And upward economic mobility depends on the rule of law. America’s commitment to the rule of law has allowed millions to start businesses, rent apartments, and enter into basic economic transactions, knowing that they will be treated fairly, regardless of their socioeconomic status. But if a significant portion of our society can’t afford civil representation, they effectively lose the benefit of the rule of law. And make no mistake – that comes with real economic consequences.
A healthy civil justice system is essential to foster fairness, empower individuals and eliminate many of the barriers that block families living in poverty from stability and greater engagement in their communities.
Our local Legal Aid is one of the largest law firms in Northeast Ohio with 75 full-time attorneys, 50 other staff, and thousands of volunteers. Legal Aid does much to close the justice gap, most notably in the past two years implementing an impressive housing Right to Counsel effort, and working closely with Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg to provide support to the Pro Bono Collaborative. Legal Aid also educates people about their rights and works towards ensuring that all, not just those who can afford it, benefit from a well-functioning justice system. But, despite these incredible efforts, many people who need help are still turned away.
So, what more can be done to address the justice gap? Increased support for civil justice services, like those provided civil legal aid organizations, is a good place to start.
However, given the sheer magnitude of this problem, effective solutions cannot be implemented without robust support from Congress. According to the Legal Services Corporation’s 2023 budget request to Congress, the annual appropriation has increased only modestly and not remotely enough to keep up with inflation. Increased support for legal aid across the country is a long-overdue investment in closing the justice gap -- an investment that will pay off through improved economic mobility, a stronger civil society, and a healthier rule of law.
Terry Szmagala Jr. is executive vice president and chief legal officer at Eaton Corp. James Graham is executive vice president for human resources and chief legal and administrative officer and secretary at Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.