Barriers to Justice in the United States

There is a civil justice crisis in the United States.  It might look like a family wrongfully evicted from their home, a homeless veteran with untreated PTSD, or a woman unsafe in her own home because she cannot escape her abuser.  Many faces and stories comprise this crisis, but the common thread is a civil justice system that fails to meet America’s promise of equal justice under law.

Every year, Americans encounter life-changing problems that they cannot resolve because of barriers in accessing our civil justice system.  At some point, most people have a problem like a divorce or wrongful treatment by a landlord or debt collector and need a legal solution. But millions lose their cases in civil court, not because they have done something wrong, but because they do not have the legal information or assistance they need.

This crisis – the disparity between the need for and the availability of legal assistance – is deepening.  State studies consistently show that 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans are not being met.  Equal justice is an American ideal, but too often, low-income people who seek to protect their families, their homes and their livelihoods must face their civil legal problems alone.

Justice for All

Civil legal aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have.  It provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. Civil legal aid makes it easier to access information — whether through easy-to-understand forms, including online forms; legal assistance or representation; and self-help clinics — so people can avail themselves of the rights and protections afforded by law. 

Civil legal aid also helps streamline the court system and cuts down on court costs. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance we close with “justice for all.” We need civil legal aid to ensure that the very principle our founding fathers envisioned remains alive: justice for all, not the few who can afford it.

Statewide Legal Aid

There is no substitute for a strong statewide legal aid program. New initiatives are underway to encourage more pro bono representation and to provide more support for the increasing number of self-represented litigants, but neither can replace an adequately-funded, staffed legal aid program, with lawyers who are poverty law experts and available on demand when low-income families are in crisis.