This post was originally made November 26, 2016.
Attorney Amber Rush agrees: there is without a doubt a Justice Gap problem in the United States. The Justice Gap is “the difference between the level of legal assistance available and the level that is necessary to meet the needs of low-income Americans.” More studies need to be conducted across the nation about barriers to representation for moderate to low income populations, but lack of funding hampers this progress on a continuing basis.
From the studies that have been done, there are some things that we do know about access to justice issues. The nation’s population is continuing to grow each year. Millions of people in the U.S. are without legal counsel and services when they need them. Washington State’s Civil Legal Needs Study is known as the most comprehensive and representative study in the nation according to the Director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, James Bamberger. The study found the legal needs of lower income populations are also rising. The most startling statistic is that “[s]even in ten low-income households in Washington State face at least one significant civil legal problem each year. The average number of problems per household increased from 3.3 in 2003 to 9.3 in the latest, 2014 survey.” This statistic is projected to rise according to industry leaders. In effect, “[m]ore than 70% of the low-income households in Washington face at least one civil legal problem during a 12-month period.”
Every year the federal government and other agencies provide a budget for the civil legal needs in each state. In Washington state, over the last 7 years the budget has been reduced by nearly 20%. This has a direct negative effect on the number of civil legal aid attorneys who provide legal services for low income client. The national minimum access standard is to provide at least 1 civil legal aid attorney for every 5,000 people falling at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. This is the goal, and a deplorable one at that because in reality there is no way a single attorney can provide legal services to all 5,000 people. However, Washington state is nowhere near attaining even this minimum standard. The ratio of civil legal need attorneys in Washington is 1:11,500. The result of these staggering numbers is the public has little to no options readily available to meet their needs.
This is not just a regional issue. The nation has been trying to address this issue for decades, and the resulting legal services corporations and nonprofits are making a dent but the problem continues to grow. In the Midwest, citizens stated that in the last 18 months 66% reported they were experiencing one or more of the following legal issues: “money, debt, rented and owned housing, insurance, employment, government benefits, children’s education, clinical negligence, personal injury, and relationship breakdown and its aftermath.”
These are sobering and disturbing statistics. Legal practitioners need to find a better way to address this issue and create a system that more effectively allows the public to identify and access legal services for these catastrophic issues. Lawyers have the knowledge and the power to work together, figure this out, and fix this situation in the modern age. Let's do this.
Amber Rush is an Attorney at Navigate Law Group.
Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue you should consult an attorney.