Editor's Note: The following editorial has been updated to reflect the correction below.
Nobody wants to think about lawyers amid their New Year’s revelry and resolutions, but odds are good you’ll need legal help at some point during 2020.
Nearly half a thousand households sampled at the end of 2018 had to contend with some sort of legal issue in the preceding year — related to a will, debt collector, divorce, domestic violence, landlord dispute or something else. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, which commissioned the survey and reported on it this past November, the findings are a reminder of how thinly stretched legal access programs are to help those who need them.
If you get arrested and hauled into court, you have the right to a lawyer even if you cannot pay for one. Clarence Earl Gideon’s handwritten appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the unanimous ruling that came in his case in 1963, assured us of that.
Not so much if you have to go to court to handle a civil matter, say, to ask for help collecting unpaid child support from your ex or to fend off creditors who want to dip into your paycheck. Those who can least afford a lawyer are the ones most disadvantaged. If not for the help of legal assistance programs, justice would only come to those who can most afford it.
“The pervasive nature of such civil legal issues suggests that Americans would benefit from having more options for handling these cases and a broader range of assistance programs that extend beyond what private or legal aid attorneys can effectively provide,” wrote Erika Rickard, director of Pew’s Civil Legal System Modernization project. According to their study, about one-third of households surveyed had issues involving housing, family or debt collection. The numbers are even higher when you include traffic tickets.
All of which is something to bear in mind later this month when a group of legal professionals walk to the Statehouse to call attention to funding needs for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. The organization supports legal aid throughout the state, as well as specific programs aimed at helping people living with low incomes or who may have trouble finding a lawyer. A significant portion of its money — $24 million for the current year — comes from the state. It also gets money from interest on bank accounts lawyers keep to hold client funds.
The state’s court system, as an institution, is also attuned to this problem. It addresses legal access in a variety of ways, from smoothing the way for people with disabilities to physically access its courtrooms to initiatives such as a half-dozen court service centers, such as the one at the Fenton Judicial Center in Lawrence, offering walk-in help to those with business at the court. While not handing out advice, the staff at the centers can guide people through such chores as filing paperwork for divorce and getting child support.
Those cannot cover everything, of course. Some people just need an attorney. Last year, about 700 lawyers participated in the 20th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid to underscore that point. This year's walk is scheduled for Jan. 30.
Justice Ralph Gants, chief of the state Supreme Judicial Court, told last year's gathering that the state’s outlay for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. amounts to $3.79 per person per year — not quite enough for a latte at Starbucks, he said, but certainly enough for a cup of coffee.
“What is it worth to have a commonwealth where the poor, the vulnerable and the challenged can obtain the legal assistance they need to understand their rights,” he asked, “to be able to invoke those rights and to get a fair chance to obtain justice?”
Suffice it to say, our legal system operates on the premise that justice is delivered equally, regardless of one’s background or ability to pay. That should be the case not just in criminal cases but in civil courts, too, for everyone who has business there this year.
CORRECTION: An editorial in Thursday’s Eagle-Tribune included incorrect details about funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. The organization gets the bulk of its money from the state, or $24 million in the current year. It also gets money — $6.6 million last year — from interest on the bank accounts lawyers keep to hold client funds.