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Legal Services Corporation president: U.S. has defaulted on pledge of equal justice under law

Legal Services Corporation president James Sandman speaks to students and faculty at Saint Louis University law school on March 1, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

In 2014, 1.8 million people appeared in New York courts without a lawyer. Included in that figure were 96 percent of eviction cases, 95 percent of child support cases, and two-thirds of the state's foreclosure cases that year.

The numbers are part of a broader "justice gap" in the civil courts, Legal Services Corporation president Jim Sandman told an audience at Saint Louis University law school on Tuesday. Declining federal money for legal aid programs, and a drop in other funding sources, mean the United States is no longer living up to a founding principle.

"My experiences with the Legal Services Corporation gives me a bird's-eye view of what's going on the civil legal system today from the perspective of low-income people. It's not pretty, and it's completely inconsistent with our values," Sandman said. "The American commitment to equal justice under law actually predates the founding of the Republic."

Legal Services Corporation, which gets the biggest majority of its resources from yearly federal appropriations, funds 134 independent legal aid programs throughout the country. Employees provide assistance to low-income individuals in civil matters, where a defendant is not guaranteed an attorney.

Funding for the program is at an all-time low compared to the number of people in need, Sandman said. In the last federal budget, about $352 million was made available for the day-to-day operations of legal aid offices.

"That's about what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes for their pets," Sandman said.

Nationally, legal aid offices have to turn away 50 percent of the people who come to them seeking help, Sandman said, and that number underestimates the problem. The income thresholds are so low that many people who cannot afford an attorney can't qualify for legal aid services.

"One of the most troubling statistics to me is this one -- the vast majority of victims of domestic violence seeking protection orders in the U.S. have to represent themselves," Sandman said. "Think about that."

The problem locally

In the St. Louis region, which is served by the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, the turn-away rate is nearly 60 percent.

The justice gap is "what we live, what we experience," said Daniel Glazier, the executive director and general counsel of the eastern Missouri program.

"The need for legal services is huge, and it's growing all the time, where the resources are lessening. We see the gap each and every day," Glazier said.

He said he believes more people are now aware of the gap that exists in the civil courts.

"Out of the tragedy and the heartbreak of Ferguson I think comes a better understanding of inequity and inequality in our justice system," Glazier said, adding that corporations have provided some additional funding for his programs since August 2014.

The state's public defender system, which handles criminal cases, is also straining under increasing workloads, and is currently slated to get just a $1.5 million budget increase next year - 6 percent of a requested $25 million boost

"It's a shame, isn't it?" Glazier said of the funding needs. "This fundamental precept of what we are about has gotten drowned out in the cacophony of other noises."

Legal aid solutions

Sandman, the Legal Services Corporation president, said more funding would help legal aid programs serve more clients. But his suggestions go far beyond that:

  • A different messenger needs to spread the word about the need for legal aid. State chief justices, Sandman said, are the ideal allies. They are the guardians of the legal system, he said, and can speak directly to how large numbers of unrepresented people affect justice for everyone.
  • The system of delivering legal aid needs to be re-engineered. It's impractical for every client needing help to have an attorney, he said, but services could be offered on a continuum, from helping someone self-represent through technology all the way to an attorney. 
  • The legal system needs to be simplified. Legal has become synonymous with technicalities and structure, not with justice.
  • We need to bring other voices into the mix. Non-lawyers have a role to play.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.