Seeing the Invisible

October 26, 2013

Most of NC's poor cannot afford legal representation

In North Carolina, over 80 percent of poor and low-income folks -- facing wrenching legal wrongs or challenges -- can't get legal representation. The courthouse door maybe open, but only in theory. They can't use it.

For the last three years, Tina Pope has lived in small, dilapidated, dangerous house in Henderson. The city has now moved to condemn it. The landlord expected her to continue to pay rent even after inspectors reported code violations in July. She works two jobs to try to keep her family afloat. Wiring is perilously exposed. Rats have gnawed cabinets to pieces. There is no furnace or working heat stove. Broken windows have gone unrepaired, with bed sheets replacing them, summer and winter. The house is dark with mold – covering mattresses, furniture, walls, bathtub, sink. Tina’s son, Rhontavius, uses a nebulizer and coughs throughout the year. He has frequently awakened his mother at night, crying of bug bites. An inspector, who claimed she’d been doing inspections since Lassie was on TV, said it was the worst she’d ever seen. “No one should live like this.”

After many months trying to get the landlord to do his duty, Pope went to see Gina Reyman, an attorney at Legal Aid of Durham. Because of imminent threats to health and possible liability for continuing to live in a condemned house, Reyman was able to assign higher priority to Pope’s case than a run-of-the-mill landlord-tenant dispute. She moved to trigger an array of legal protections and claims for relief.

“All I want is to make a home for my family. I’m not asking for a handout. I’m a hard-working woman,” Pope said, praising Legal Aid for helping her. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Right she is. In North Carolina, over 80 percent of poor and low-income folks – facing wrenching legal wrongs or challenges – can’t get legal representation. The courthouse door maybe open, but only in theory. They can’t use it.

You know the drill. We carve “equal justice under law” on our courthouse walls. It is the cornerstone of our system of adjudication. For a half-century, we’ve announced as a central constitutional principle “there can be no justice where the kind of trial a person gets depends on the money he has.” But what we do can’t be squared with what we say.

Ken Schorr of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont reminds that equal justice is a fundamental, conservative value. “We’re a country of laws, all are subject to them, all are protected by them,” he notes. But our system is complex, expensive and inaccessible and without the help of a lawyer people often don’t actually get protected, he says.

George Hausen, director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, agrees: “Lawsuits don’t become simple just because poor people are involved; without counsel, even with the facts and the law on your side, you usually lose.”

N.C. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker reported last year there is one lawyer in North Carolina for every 554 people and one legal services attorney for every 19,160 poor people. Heroic legal aid offices are forced to turn away up to 80 percent of qualifying clients because they don’t have the resources to serve them.

In the last decade, given the crushing recession, the housing crisis, exploding unemployment and poverty, the number of Tar Heels qualifying for legal services assistance has risen by over 60 percent, to an astonishing 3.3 million people. At the same time, federal budget cuts to Legal Aid of North Carolina in 2011 forced the closing of four regional offices and the layoffs of 30 attorneys across the state.

“We’re always drinking from a fire hydrant. We can’t even scratch the surface,” says Jim Barrett of Asheville’s Pisgah Legal Services. Reviewing the county domestic violence docket shows his office is able to assist in only a tiny percentage of cases. Massive numbers of cases involve really compelling matters where no one would say a lawyer shouldn’t have been provided, he says. “No one.”

Schorr summarizes our delivery of legal services this way: “At ground level, it’s grim. Thousands lose their homes through eviction or foreclosure who wouldn’t if there was a right to counsel. Domestic violence victims return to their abusers because they can’t get child custody and support orders to let them live separately. Thousands of unemployed workers are destitute, without either employment or insurance benefits, because they can’t get representation.”

What passes for civil justice among the have-nots is astonishing.

When I began studying access to civil justice decades ago, I was surprised that the United States is the outlier among advanced democracies. We talk the most about equal justice, even demanding our kids pledge allegiance to “justice for all.” We talk the most. We do the least.

The American Bar Association reports that in decisions binding over 40 nations and 400 million people, the European Court of Human Rights has held that “indigents cannot have a fair hearing unless represented by lawyers” – and ordered member states to provide counsel at public expense in civil courts. British Commonwealth nations have done the same for four decades. Ironically, polls suggest about 80 percent of Americans are convinced we also provide a right to civil counsel. We don’t.

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law study, reviewing adjudication systems around the globe, gives the United States an “F” in access to civil justice – placing us last among the 20 wealthiest democracies. The authors explain: “Socioeconomic status matters far more in the U.S. than in other countries.” Poor people are put at massive disadvantage.

Such comparisons bring to mind a statement by Sen. Lindsey Graham during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court. Graham boasted that “the best thing that could happen to the world would be if the legal system of the U.S. could be replicated exactly and spread around it.”

He wouldn’t have said that if he were poor.

Legal Aid’s Hausen, a wiry military veteran who doesn’t fit the bleeding-heart profile, says: “I think we ought to look at our challenges like we did when I was a Marine. Every day we said, ‘We don’t leave anyone behind.’ That’s what a strong society does.”

Amen. Or, with apologies, Semper Fi.

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