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The Poor Need Good Organization and Representation, Not Attorneys

Jackson   It was my kind of headline in the Times, “Right to Lawyer Can be Empty Promise to the Poor.”  I was ready to agree whether I read the article or not, they “had me from hello.”

Inarguably this is not a new problem.  In criminal matters even with the Gideon decision ostensibly giving indigents the right to counsel, such defendants face hard odds and long sentences even with over-matched and outgunned public defenders and courts where mercy stops at the door of the legislatively determined mandatory sentencing not the judge’s chambers.

This piece though was making the very valid case that the poor were being hammered on civil cases as well, and without a doubt, that’s true in spades:

“Civil matters — including legal issues like home foreclosure, job loss, spousal abuse and parental custody — were not covered by the decision. Today, many states and counties do not offer lawyers to the poor in major civil disputes, and in some criminal ones as well. Those states that do are finding that more people than ever are qualifying for such help, making it impossible to keep up with the need. The result is that even at a time when many law school graduates are without work, many Americans are without lawyers.   The Legal Services Corporation, the Congressionally financed organization that provides lawyers to the poor in civil matters, says there are more than 60 million Americans — 35 percent more than in 2005 — who qualify for its services. But it calculates that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. In state after state, according to a survey of trial judges, more people are now representing themselves in court and they are failing to present necessary evidence, committing procedural errors and poorly examining witnesses, all while new lawyers remain unemployed.”

What really caught by eye was the fact that people are representing themselves.  The article was making the case for lawyers every which way, but why not advocates or representatives that are not lawyers, but who know the rules of the road, like union stewards and grievance handlers with deep knowledge of programs and procedures, similar to the case I made in Citizen Wealth for “maximum eligible participation?” Why not men and women who are able to advocate as paralegals of sorts to make sure that poor citizens in a world unknown to them but one with huge, lasting consequences including incarceration?   And, why would community organizations not be spectacularly qualified to fill this void?

I can guarantee that there is not suddenly going to be new funding to meet the “80% of the legal needs of the poor” that are going unmet.  In civil matters like foreclosures, small claims, debt and credit issues, and similar economic matters, this would seem to be grist for the mill for community organizations.  There’s a vacuum begging to be filled!