Last year, in order to help pay for a regime of tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest North Carolinians, our General Assembly zeroed out the state’s appropriation for legal services. In the session that ended a few weeks ago, George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, lobbied hard to restore at least some of the funding – to no avail. It’s tough to persuade a crew engaged in the nation’s stoutest war on poor people to pay for their lawyers.
Sen. Brent Jackson of Autryville, one of the powerful appropriation chairs, led the charge to end funding. Jackson is the Senate’s only mega-farmer. Having benefited mightily from agribusiness contributions, he has quickly become their standard bearer. Jackson carries no affection for LANC. A couple of its lawyers have had the gall to win cases on behalf of poor farmworkers in Eastern North Carolina. So Jackson saw the rare opportunity, in a single stroke, to both line the pockets of rich Tar Heels and restrict the effective rights of those working in the fields. A win-win if ever there were one.
As a result, Hausen has been forced in recent weeks to lay off 48 lawyers and paralegals – from a staff of about 350. If cuts passed by the U.S. House become law later this year, he’ll have to eliminate 50 more. Legal aid lawyers carry famously high caseloads and enjoy famously low salaries. One of the most efficient anti-poverty programs in North Carolina is, as we speak, being markedly decimated.
This is hardly an auspicious time to gut legal services.
Given the explosion of poverty that has occurred here since 2008, now 23 percent of Tar Heels, over 2.2 million, qualify for legal services under federal guidelines. The marker is set at 125 percent of the poverty threshold – or about $29,000 for a family of four. Half of legal aid clients make less than $15,000 a year.
80% of need unmet
Last year, LANC was able to serve over 25,000 families. This year, Hausen fears, the number will drop significantly. And even at 2014 levels, the N.C. Equal Justice Commission reports that over 80 percent of the legal need of the poor and near poor was unmet. The commission’s Mary Irvine is frank to say: “Access to justice in North Carolina has reached a crisis point.” Thousands of children, victims of domestic violence, seniors and veterans go without the legal services required to meet their basic human needs. Huge numbers lose their homes, their jobs, their benefits, their health care and their ability to get protective orders simply because they can’t get counsel.
For perspective, it is important to note the United States already treats its low-income litigants worse than any other advanced nation. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law study, reviewing adjudicatory systems across the globe, has typically given the U.S. an “F” in access to civil justice, placing us last among the 20 wealthiest democracies. The authors explained that, “Socio-economic status matters far more (here) than in other countries.” The impoverished experience greater disadvantage. North Carolina legislators apparently decided last place wasn’t bad enough. We needed to do more to step on the necks of the poor.
Hausen says most members of the General Assembly reflexively view legal aid as simply one of a list of entitlement programs through which low-income people ask for something they didn’t pay for and don’t deserve. As a result, many lawmakers are eager to try to abolish it. But effective access to representation is a foundational constitutional commitment. It is a centerpiece of the very idea of due process of law.
We’ve constructed a legal system that is complex, expensive, adversarial and professionally specialized. Navigating it without counsel is as far beyond the ken of most Americans as doing brain surgery is to me. This is a choice we have made as a society. And we have clung to it. We have also said, repeatedly, that we won’t allow important rights to be lost without providing a meaningful hearing, at a meaningful time, in a meaningful manner. But, for poor North Carolinians, when we say that, we lie.
It is perhaps true that looking at access to justice in a systemic way is a step deeper than our legislators typically choose to probe. I asked Hausen to describe the mission of Legal Aid. He replied instantly: “Reducing the impact of poverty in North Carolina.” Perhaps there lies the rub.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.