There’s a devastating shortage of lawyers in the US who can help the poor with eviction or child custody cases

A civil legal aid lawyer can help with an eviction or foreclosure,
A civil legal aid lawyer can help with an eviction or foreclosure,
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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Losing custody of a child can be just as devastating as a prison sentence, if not worse. Yet in recent years, the pitfalls of the American criminal justice system have vastly overshadowed the devastating effects on America’s poor of its civil justice counterpart.

According to new data from the Justice Index, a database and map project that scores states on implementing best practices in their civil justice systems, there is less than one lawyer who can provide free legal aid in civil cases for every 10,000 Americans who can’t afford representation.

“[These are] life and death kinds of matters, when you consider that people are being evicted from their homes, facing the loss of their homes in foreclosure or loss of their children in family court,” said David Udell, the director of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law which created the Justice Index. 

Most people are familiar with the concept of a court-appointed lawyer, or right to counsel, guaranteed to all criminal defendants by the US constitution. While there is no such right in most civil cases, which also include debt collections, rent disputes, credit and employment issues, child support, domestic violence, and even civil rights, there are resources available for low-income Americans who need help with their litigation. In fact, there are hundreds of organizations that provide this sort of assistance, but there are still far too few lawyers for the volume of civil cases adjudicated every year in America (roughly the same amount as criminal cases).

“Legal aid programs turn away at least one case for every one they take,” says Udell. 

The national average is 0.64 civil legal aid lawyers per 10,000. (By comparison, the national ratio of all attorneys per 10,000 Americans is 40). In some states it’s even worse:

According to Udell, it’s not for the lack of law school graduates who would want to help these underserved people. “What we hear is that these jobs themselves are very attractive and that there is fierce competition to get them,” he said.  ”There are many people who graduate from law schools and who are unable to find jobs, who would be more than happy to work in these positions.”

The problem is a lack of funded positions. Many of the aid programs are federally funded, and the government has not been increasing the funding in recent years, “except in very modest ways,” says Udell. 

Advocates stress that this sort of aid is crucial because of the way the civil and criminal justice affect America’s poor is intertwined. Losing your home can mean ending up on the street, while debt may push you into illegal activity. Civil legal aid lawyers can help people released from prison fight undue fees, or job discrimination.

Many courts and states themselves are trying to help remove the obstacles low-income parties face in civil suits. They’re introducing online tools that can automatically enter legal pleadings, training judges to provide help to those without legal assistance, and requiring courtrooms to provide materials written in plain English.

But with such a dire shortage of civil legal aid lawyers, these efforts are only scratching the surface of the problem.