I have devoted a great deal of time during my career providing pro bono civil legal aid as well as advocating for programs that provide these services. It is something that I wholeheartedly believe every lawyer has a duty to provide.
The Revised Code of Washington codifies into law that “The provision of legal aid services to indigent persons is an important component of the state’s responsibility to provide for the proper and effective administration of civil and criminal justice.” RCW 2.53.005. Low income people with a civil legal problem such as family law, housing, immigration or debtor/creditor issues do not have access to a court appointed lawyer like those who have been charged with a crime. What this means is that many people with civil legal needs either do not get access to the courts or end up trying to often unsuccessfully and inefficiently represent themselves. Either situation poses a problem for everyone in the community because we all rely on the fair and efficient administration of justice to adjudicate and resolve problems. You can imagine this problem as a snowball tumbling down a steep hill.
In 2003 the Office of Civil Legal Aid conducted a legal needs study in Washington State. The purpose of the study was to set a baseline for the civil legal needs faced by low income Washington residents. In 2014 the study was repeated. Those involved in the civil legal aid hoped that the efforts of the past 10 years would show an improvement in the 2003 findings and an overall reduction in need. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
The 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study is comprehensive. The entire study can be found here. Here are some of the takeaways that lawyers and policy makers needs to be aware of:
1) The average number of legal problems per household increased from 2.3 in 2003 to 9.3 in 2014.
2) More than 70% of low income households in Washington face at least one civil legal problem in a 12 month period.
3) The number of health and healthcare related legal problems increased from 18.8% to 43.4%. Medical debt was cited as a problem repeatedly.
4) The number of consumer, financial services and credit problems increased from 27% to 37.6%.
5) Native American and African American people faced more civil legal problems than other races.
6) Victims of domestic violence face considerable more overall civil legal problems than others.
7) Between 2000 and 2013 persons living at or below 125% of the poverty rate increased from 815,000 to 1,250,000 in Washington.
These notable findings from the Civil Legal Needs Study mean unequivocally that the need for civil legal aid has increased dramatically. The types of legal problems people face has also changed. Now more than ever, these findings are a call to action on the legal community. We stand alone as the group responsible for turning this problem around.
Please support your local volunteer legal services program. Give you time as a volunteer. If you can’t give your time, than donate to the programs that are doing this work.
Justice Charles Wiggens, chair of the study best summed up our call to action:
“It challenges us to be aware of the costs and consequences of administering a system of justice that denies large segments of the population the ability to assert and effectively defend core legal rights. Ultimately, it challenges us to work all the harder to secure the investments needed to deliver on the promise embedded in our constitutional history and our nation’s creed – that liberty and justice be made available “to all.”