Today, DPN has released our Legal Aid for All policy kit—an open resource for legislators, activists, experts, journalists, and any other interested parties to learn how states could build an infrastructure to make our civil legal system more inclusive, equitable, and just. This kit is a resource showing not only how the system is broken, but also laying out a plan to fix it—how states can take steps to decommodify the civil legal system and guarantee every person legal assistance for any civil case in which they are involved.
A legal system that only works for some is not a system of justice. In the United States, eighty percent of the civil legal needs of the poor, and about half of those of the middle class, go unmet. According to one study, in over 75 percent of all civil trial cases in the United States, at least one litigant does not have a lawyer. As a result, our civil legal system is skewed against the poor, especially people of color, women, immigrants, elderly people, those with disabilities, and members of LGBTQ community, further entrenching injustices outside of the civil legal system.
The difference between what legal services are available and what services are needed is referred to as the “justice gap.” The United States stands out among industrialized nations not only for its failure at closing that gap, but also for its lack of investment in efforts to do so. According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2020, the United States ranks 108th out of 128 countries on “access to and affordability of civil justice” and 36th in the measure of “whether ordinary people can resolve their grievances peacefully and effectively through the civil justice system.”
The negative consequences of a justice gap as large as ours are countless—its mothers evicted from their homes, violence victims not receiving restraining orders, veterans not receiving benefits, elder abuse going unchecked, and more. As a whole, it results in a civil legal system that entrenches and sustains inequities, rather than remedying them.
Taking steps to decommodify the civil legal system—to take the inequities of the market out of the provision of legal services—will ensure everyone gets the help they need when seeking justice through the courts. By drawing on certain state laws instituting a right to counsel in specific types of cases and more comprehensive international precedents, states can set up institutions to democratize the civil legal system and support their people when they must turn to the courts for justice.
Drawing on best practices from domestic and international models, the kit explains how states can help close the justice gap by: (1) expanding areas where a civil right to counsel is guaranteed beyond criminal defense; (2) creating a new state institution to make this “right to counsel” real—a “library lawyer” system, in which state-funded “Local Library Legal Office” are established in every community in the state to coordinate and administer the provision of civil legal aid for that area’s population; and (3) expanding the general supply of lawyers by creating more pathways to being a legal services provider.
If you are a legislator, activist, expert, or journalist looking to help turn public banks from idea into policy, check out (and share) our kit — and please reach out!