Tackling the ‘justice gap:’ Lawmakers weigh barriers to civil legal services

WASHINGTON — Anyone accused of a crime in the U.S. has the right to an attorney and will be given one if they cannot afford one. But that is not the case for civil legal problems, like child custody or disputes with landlords. That leaves many people on their own if they cannot afford a private attorney.

This “justice gap” and the impact on Americans was the topic of a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

“The reality is that we really have two justice systems in this country. One for those who have the resources to hire counsel and one for those who don’t,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE.).

Lawmakers heard testimony from Veronica Gonzalez, a domestic violence survivor. She said she was finally able to escape an abusive relationship in 2016 thanks to the help of workers at a doctor’s office.

“The clinic staff helped me and my son escape through the back door,” said Gonzalez. “We hid in the trunk of an employee’s car and rode for five miles until we were safe.”

After fleeing, Gonzalez needed to file a protection order and settle custody of her then three-year-old son. But her former alleged abuser controlled the finances.

“I had no money to hire an attorney,” said Gonzalez.

Thankfully, Gonzalez said she was able to get the help she needed through Legal Aid Chicago. It’s one of more than 100 independent legal service centers that give free legal help to low-income people facing civil legal issues.

But funding for those services is limited.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) says a study shows low-income Americans didn’t get any legal help or didn’t get enough legal help for 92 percent of their legal needs in 2022.

LSC said the study also shows nearly three quarters of low-income people experienced at least one civil legal issue in a year.

“In eviction cases, generally 90 percent of those who are unrepresented suffer an unfavorable result and the flipside is 90 percent of tenant who are represented achieve a favorable outcome. So, it makes a difference,” said Ronald Flagg, President of Legal Services Corporation.

The justice inequities are getting the attention of members of both parties.

“The poor and people of limited means cannot afford lawyers and so they are denied justice pure and simple,” said Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Gonzalez is now on the Board of Directors for Legal Aid Chicago to help others. She’s urging lawmakers to invest in legal resources to help people.

“It’s so important that other women seek help and a lot of them cannot afford private attorneys,” said Gonzalez.

During the discussion, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) cautioned that policy solutions must make sure legal help is provided for people across the ideological spectrum and that they are fair to all.

“How do we strike a balance? How do we make sure that we protect landlords who are legitimately following the law and are being abused by lawsuits?” said Tillis. “I think we need to have some balance in this policy if we don’t want it to be a political lightning rod from Congress to Congress.”

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