The justice gap is the disparity between populations that are able to attain proper legal representation and take advantage of the civil court system, on one hand, and other populations that are unable to do so. Increasingly, low-income people are falling into the latter category as upwards of 80 percent can’t afford the right kind of legal representation.
The civil court system is especially important for low-income individuals because it helps protect their persons, possessions, families, property, and livelihoods against the predations of larger societal forces. The housing bubble of 2008 and the foreclosure crisis that ensued provide a textbook case of how “equal justice under law” became merely words.
A recent study, “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Needs of Low-income Americans,” provides more clarity of this issue. The study found that 86% of low-income Americans filing civil legal cases in the last year received either no legal assistance at all or inadequate legal help with their cases. Increasingly, money is a barrier to full access to legal representation and the justice system.
Lack of resources is another reason frequently given by legal teams for their inability to offer low-income populations the legal representation that they need to adequately defend themselves in civil court. The low-income individuals surveyed by the study disproportionately had legal or monetary issues related to the following: foreclosures, personal debt, foreclosures, child support, maintenance of income and wage garnishment, and the continuation of disability payments.
For many of these low-income individuals the fight is one of life or death. Sometimes inadequate legal representation can mean living on the streets, forgoing needed medical care, or missing disability payments.
The study took a look at two thousand low-income individuals and found that legal teams were often stretched too thin to offer thorough counseling and case preparation. The will on the part of legal professionals is absolutely there, but too frequently the resources simply aren’t up to the task of the reality.