We Need to Confront America’s ‘Justice Gap’

George, a veteran and senior, was struggling with serious health issues. Even worse, he had a caregiver who neglected, abused, and stole from him. Adult Protective Services referred George to Blue Ridge Legal Services, a legal aid organization based in Virginia funded by the Legal Services Corp. (LSC).

Legal aid attorneys helped George get his abuser’s power of attorney revoked and enabled him to get new powers of attorney in place with family members who he trusted. They also helped George file a civil case against his abuser, which resulted in a $40,000 settlement.

George is not alone in facing serious civil legal problems. What’s uncommon about his story is that he got the legal help he needed to resolve them.

Every day, millions of low-income Americans grapple with civil issues that limit their access to safe housing, health care, employment and more. These problems are widespread, with 74% of low-income households experiencing at least one civil issue in the past year.

Due to a lack of legal aid funding, the vast majority of low-income people must go it alone without adequate legal help. This shortfall is called the “justice gap.”

LSC’s just-released a report that reveals disturbing findings about people’s inability to get the legal help they need. The data show that low-income Americans receive no or inadequate legal help for a staggering 92% of all their substantial civil legal problems.

Last year, low-income individuals brought approximately 1.9 million problems to LSC-funded legal aid organizations around the country, but LSC grantees were unable to provide any or sufficient legal help for an estimated 1.4 million of them. These problems frequently determine whether a family can remain in their home, whether an abused partner or child can secure a protection order, or a veteran can receive disability benefits she’s earned.

A Worsening Situation

The situation prior to the pandemic was dire. And the Covid-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on low-income Americans has made a bad situation worse.

A third of low-income Americans in the past year experienced at least one significant civil legal problem directly tied to the pandemic. Most of these problems involved income maintenance, education, and housing—issues that go to the heart of a person’s security. More than half of low-income Americans experiencing problems related to unemployment benefits and eviction attributed them to the pandemic.

The human costs of the justice gap are sobering, and those of us in the legal community should be particularly concerned about the study’s findings.

LSC’s report reveals that the problem goes beyond inadequate resources. There are barriers—in terms of knowledge, attitudes, and perceived cost—to people seeking legal help at all.

Low-income Americans reached out for legal help for only 25% of the civil legal problems that affected them in the past year. Among people with at least one reported legal problem, only 5% knew that a legal professional could help resolve all the problems they experienced. More than half of low-income Americans doubted they could find and afford a lawyer if they needed one.

Americans Need Access to Civil Justice

Our profession depends on a functioning civil justice system—a system that people know they can rely on and access. But LSC’s report shows that most low-income Americans hold uncertain or negative perceptions of the system and how it relates to them.

Only 28% of low-income Americans believe that people like them are treated fairly in the civil legal system. But without adequate funding for the LSC—the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation—too many people will continue to be shut out of the justice system.

LSC is funded by Congress, and while it has long enjoyed bipartisan support, its appropriation has never been sufficient to truly narrow the justice gap, much less eliminate it.

There are many ways we can help close America’s justice gap. Let your elected officials know about the crucial importance of civil legal aid in your communities.

Another way you can help is to volunteer in local legal aid efforts. I know from personal experience that providing pro bono services yourself can both make a difference in your neighbors’ lives and provide profound satisfaction.

George can sleep better at night thanks to access to legal assistance. By helping out people like George, those of us fortunate enough to be able to help close the justice gap might just sleep better, too.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Ronald S. Flagg is president of the Legal Services Corp. He previously practiced commercial and administrative litigation at Sidley Austin LLP for 31 years, 27 years as a partner. He chaired the firm’s Committee on Pro Bono and Public Interest Law for more than a decade.