Pro Bono News

Pro Bono is the Key to Expanding Access to Our Courts

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Pro Bono is the Key to Expanding Access to Our Courts

"Thousands of Americans step into courtrooms across the country each year—many of these individuals are facing serious legal issues, are scared, and are without the knowledge needed to represent themselves adequately. They take off work to file one-sentence petitions that are later thrown out on technicalities. Their voices are ignored by judges or silenced by opposing counsels with objections. Or they fear the system and give up before even stepping through the courthouse doors. Despite the widely held belief that every citizen deserves equal opportunity in our legal system, and the hard work of legal aid attorneys and efforts of advocates to reform the court system, there is still a large number of people who are unable to adequately engage with the legal system when they have a legal problem. In many instances, economic, institutional, and structural barriers limit their access to justice.

The Access-to-Justice Crisis

Access to justice is an essential ingredient to a fair legal system. People need to have the ability to seek and obtain a legal resolution through legal processes. Outside the legal community, people are sometimes shocked to hear there is no “right to counsel” for litigants, as is the practice in criminal law. The 2017 “Justice Gap Report” conducted by the Legal Services Corporation reveals that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. So many who face serious and complex matters such as consumer issues, evictions, domestic violence, child custody disputes, bankruptcy, and divorce are left to attempt to resolve these issues on their own.

There are many ways the court structure and legal process are complex and intimidating for someone without a lawyer trying to navigate the system. Many litigants may not speak English or may not be sufficiently proficient to understand everything the judge or court order says. Many courts have looked internally on how to make their system more accessible for self-represented litigants, including language translation services for litigants who do not speak English, using technology like Skype so petitioners do not have to take time off work for status hearings, and updating court forms to incorporate more plain language and less legal jargon.

One major obstacle for litigants to access the court system may be actual physical access to the courthouse—whether the problem is older court buildings that are not sufficiently accessible for people with disabilities or people located in more rural areas from whom a courthouse may be several hours away or difficult to get to. Moreover, for those not in urban areas, there is often not a legal aid office in close proximity and often fewer pro bono attorneys able to provide assistance. The lack of funds for gas or bus fare to get to the courthouse can prohibit low-income individuals from being able to make their court appearance. Or they may not have childcare or the funds to set up childcare. These barriers have caused some legal service providers to offer grants to their clients to help fund their transportation or even create volunteer driving programs..."

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