Equal Justice Under Law:
How Are We Doing?/span>
Celebrating the Service of Helping Others
Last month, two important events occurred that affect all WSBA members and, in fact, our entire profession. First, we participated in the annual celebration of Pro Bono Month and Pro Bono Week.
We recognized the volunteer acts which thousands of us make to ensure that the promise of "justice for all" is realized by everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable and least able to defend their legal rights. We celebrated the many who provide direct legal assistance to low-income individuals and families facing a wide range of legal problems, including domestic violence, sexual assault, eviction, foreclosure, debt collection/bankruptcy, and the denial or termination of essential governmental support.
We celebrated the many who provide direct legal assistance to low-income individuals and families facing a wide range of legal problems, including domestic violence, sexual assault, eviction,foreclosure, debt collection/bankruptcy, and the denial or termination of essential governmental support.
We celebrated the contributions of volunteers who provide legal services to military members and veterans, immigrants, persons with disabilities, and young people. We also celebrated the volunteer work of many of us who work to secure and increase critical funding for our legal aid programs through federal and state funding. The Campaign for Equal Justice, the Endowment for Equal Justice, and numerous others are working all the time to raise the critical funds to help these "equal access to justice" efforts. We should take pride in our pro bono ontributions and I personally thank each of you who volunteers with your time or your pocketbook. It is so important.
The 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study - A Sobering Message
While we celebrate the hard work and efforts of so many, the release of the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study Update was startling. The study documents the continuing challenges facing low-income people and families and their continuing inability to get the help they need.
In 2002 and 2003, I served on a Supreme Court's panel that oversaw the 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study. It was a groundbreaking effort to measure our profession's ability to meet that promise of equal access to justice here in Washington state. The 2003 study told us that 78% of lowincome individuals had civil legal problems, 88% of which were not served with the help of legal counsel. It was estimated that these folks had an average of three legal problems a year. This has been a baseline by which we have measured progress of our collective journey of service to those who find the courthouse doors closed to them because they can't afford civil legal counsel.
The 2015 study was conducted by the Office of Civil Legal Aid under the auspices of the Supreme Court's special Civil Legal Needs Update Committee, an 11-member committee chaired by Justice Charles Wiggins. The Social and Economic Sciences Research Center at Washington State University conducted the study with rigorous protocols and systems to produce reliable results.
In summary, the new study tells us that approximately 70% of low-income individuals have civil legal problems, that 82% of those are not served, and that these folks actually have more issues now than in 2003, with an average of 9.3 problems a year. It is clear that not enough improvement is being made.
The Message of Need for Help
Beyond the statistics, to say that the study's findings are sobering is an understatement. The 2015 update tells us that low-income Washingtonians face daunting problems at levels and across a set of problems well beyond the traditional areas of family law, landlordtenant,and debt collection. These problems affect every aspect of life.
I encourage you to read the study (found at www.ocla.wa.gov/reports)
Here are a few of the most significant findings:
- The most common legal problems have changed since the 2003 study. Healthcare, consumer/finance, and employment now represent the three areas with the highest percentage of legal problems.
- Who you are matters when it comes to whether, what type, and how many problems you are likely to experience. Race, ethnicity, and other personal characteristics affect the number and types of problems, the degree to which people experience discrimination or unfair treatment, and the degree to which legal help is secured.
- Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are some of the highest number of problems per capita (19) of any group.
- Significant percentages of lowincome households experience unfair treatment on the basis of their credit histories, prior involvement with the juvenile or adult criminal justice system, and/or their status as a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault.
- A majority of low-income people do not understand their problems have a legal dimension that would benefit from civil legal aid.
- Most low-income people have limited confidence in the state's civil justice system.
The Challenge to Each of Us
The study results present a direct and immediate challenge to each one of us, both individually as attorneys and as a profession. We hold fast to the notion that civil society must adhere to a set of commonly accepted rules, processes, and procedures. We are a nation of laws and we value order to our society.
We rely on these to ensure that justice is realized by those who look to us for help with their legal problems.
When our legal system effectively denies access to nearly 20% of our state's population, and particularly those who are often the most vulnerable, our credibility and that of the entire justice system is challenged.
As attorneys, we serve the public. We have a responsibility to lead. As a profession and individually, we must work to ensure that all who face profound legal problems get the professional legal help they need.
We must work together to increase funding for our civil legal aid delivery system. Each one of us must donate some of our time and we must help financially. Each one of us must up our game in delivering pro bono services. And we must continue to work to find other ways -- using technology, social media, and other vehicles -- to ensure that all Washingtonians know of their rights and responsibilities and have the ability to effectively assert and defend them where and when necessary.
Whether a low-income person in need is served through the Northwest Justice Project, Columbia Legal Services, or the many volunteer lawyer programs across the state, we know that is not enough. The Access to Justice Board, the Legal Foundation of Washington, the Washington State Bar Foundation, the WSBA, the members of the Alliance for Equal Justice, and so many others are working very hard. We expect that the new Limited License Legal Technician program will add to this effort as graduates are licensed and grow in numbers.
Ultimately, we need to continue to look in the mirror and determine how we can do more. Our profession is here to help people. Let us each renew our commitment to the unique promise of our democracy -- the promise carved into the marble of the U.S. Supreme Court building and the promise embedded in the Pledge of Allegiance -- the promise of "Equal Justice Under Law." NWL
Published in November 2015 Issue of WSBA's NWLawyer Magazine