By Janai Woodhouse, CFCC Student Fellow (Fall 2020)
Examining the Issue: What Is Access to Justice?
Access to Justice is a systemic issue that addresses the problem people of low socioeconomic status have in obtaining equal access to the legal process. The Access to Justice effort recognizes that only some people have access to the American legal system. Poor people and racial minorities are often left out, demonstrating a problem in the legal system. Currently, justice does not operate for all, but those with the economic means can afford a voice in the legal process. Therefore, Access to Justice initiatives seek to address the problem of unmet legal needs in the country.
Astoundingly, broader issues around access to justice arise in civil cases, where usually there is no right to counsel. Currently, there is an impediment to low-income people who seek legal help and counsel. Across the United States, “almost one million low-income people each year seek legal help and do not get the help they need. And 80% of Marylanders who need help with a civil legal problem do not get the help they need.” Moreover, the legal issues for which low-income Americans seek help “significantly impact their lives.” These unmet legal needs involve issues such as:
- Wage theft
- Debt collection
- Domestic violence
- Access to medical treatment
Eighty percent of Marylanders are unable to receive assistance in these legal areas due to their income. This is highly problematic because those without legal help often have worse outcomes than those who are represented by an attorney. This percentage leads to the inference that poorer litigants are forced to represent themselves. In fact, “[m]ost civil justice problems are handled by people on their own, or with advice from family and friends.” In Maryland, approximately 325,000 residents do not get legal help to resolve their civil legal issues. The national crisis hits close to home.
Maryland’s Access to Justice Solutions
Nationally, there has been a push toward greater access to justice. Maryland’s Access to Justice Commission (“the Commission”) advocates for free or low-cost representation, works to inform residents of civil legal aid, and creates easier pathways for all Marylanders to get legal assistance.
The Commission’s Strategic Vision Report for 2020 lists priorities, including, but not limited to:
- Driving projects, research, reports, campaigns, and convenings that provide information about the Access to Justice issues.
- Promoting and Advocating Access to Justice issues, including civil legal aid funding and civil right to counsel in cases that involve basic human needs.
- Creating a statewide infrastructure to disseminate information pertaining to Access to Justice.
Though there is much work to be done before all in our society have equal access to justice, there have been strides toward change nationally. The number of people who cannot afford access to the legal system is astounding, but law students, legal practitioners, and courts can contribute to positive strides in the Access to Justice effort. With knowledge of the issues and problems present in our legal system, we can use this information to inform and improve our practice.