By Kevin Golembiewski
The law is a language. Pleading, cause of action, discovery, hearsay, res judicata, statute of limitations, civil procedure. To understand and protect your legal rights, you must learn this language and the complex rules that govern it. Or you must find an interpreter — that is, a lawyer. No different than if you were in a foreign country without an interpreter, if you have a legal problem but no lawyer, you cannot advocate for yourself.
That is the reality for millions of low-income Americans, according to a recent study by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). About 50 million Americans have household incomes below 125% of the poverty threshold, and 92% of them do not have any, or enough, legal help for their civil legal issues — issues that range from eviction to domestic violence to disability benefits. Those Americans are stranded in the land of the law without an interpreter.
LSC’s study, The Justice Gap: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, details the scope, causes, and consequences of this problem.
The Scope. In any given year, three out of four low-income Americans are confronted with one or more civil legal problems. The most common types of problems are consumer issues, which include medical debt, harassment from creditors, disputes with utilities providers, and consumer scams; health-care issues, which include denial of access to necessary health care; income-maintenance issues, which include difficulty accessing food stamps, unemployment benefits, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families; and housing issues, which include landlord/tenant disputes.
The Consequences. Unmet legal needs can have devastating consequences for adults, children, and families. For example, 35% of low-income Americans who experience a civil legal problem report substantial impacts on their financial well-being, and 31% report substantial impacts on their or other household members’ mental and emotional health. That is not surprising. Eviction, debt, domestic violence, and the other civil legal problems that low-income Americans routinely face are life-altering events that cause financial hardship and constant stress and anxiety. Barbara’s story, which The Justice Gap discusses, is instructive. Barbara had a protection order against her ex-husband, but she could not obtain one for their children, even though he was abusing them. She hired a private attorney to fight for an order, but she ran out of money. Meanwhile, the abuse continued, until Barbara connected with a legal services organization that helped her successfully obtain an order.
The Causes. So why don’t more low-income Americans turn to legal services organizations, as Barbara did? What are the causes of the justice gap? The Justice Gap identifies three: knowledge barriers, attitudinal barriers, and cost barriers. First, Americans are unaware that lawyers can resolve many of the everyday problems that they face, such as debt, healthcare access, and landlord/tenant disputes. Second, many Americans have a negative perception of the legal system and therefore are hesitant to seek legal help. Finally, low-income Americans often do not seek legal help because they don’t think they can afford it. According to The Justice Gap, less than one-half of low-income Americans express confidence that they could find a lawyer that they could afford, while 53% either have low confidence or are not sure.
These are just some of the main takeaways from The Justice Gap; the study provides an exhaustive analysis of the scope, consequences, and causes of our country’s justice gap. If you’re interested in helping close the gap, and ensuring that the language of the law is accessible to all Americans in need, the study is a great place to start your journey.
Kevin Golembiewski is the director of Disability Rights Florida and a member of LSC’s Emerging Leaders Council.