.Close the Justice Gap: Put legal aid in reach of all Californians

Imagine walking into a hospital with two sections: one teeming with doctors ready to meet the needs of those who could afford to pay; the other a sort of do-it-yourself center, where the infirm watch YouTube videos, access a few tools and try to patch themselves up.

Sounds like an awful hospital.

Right now, that’s how the legal world operates. If you’re in enough criminal trouble, you’re guaranteed the right to counsel. If you’re caught up in a civil matter, however, you may be on your own to navigate procedures and processes designed for experts.

This civil justice gap is an enormous problem in California. The legal system is nearly impossible to avoid, but for many it has to be navigated in the dark. More than one in two Californians—55%—live in a household that experienced a legal issue in the previous 12 months, according to the State Bar of California. But only 27% of low-income Californians received any legal help, and the rate of support was only marginally higher—34%—for middle-income individuals. 

It’d be one thing if these legal encounters were over minor matters, but low-income Californians are typically fighting for basic needs and rights when they’re caught up in a civil affair involving credit/debt/fraud, health care, rental housing, discrimination, government benefit or family/relationships/abuse. These issues affect the mental and physical health of individuals, the strength and stability of families, and the resiliency of communities.

To close the civil-justice gap, we need to change how the legal system operates. The best and brightest law students are lured to “big law”—huge firms that deal primarily in corporate work and pay their associates huge amounts of money. These young lawyers are told that they’ll have a chance to work on pro bono projects—helping clients on the wrong side of the civil justice gap at no cost to the client. But this is rarely the case.

The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Conduct encourage lawyers to “aspire” to 50 hours of pro bono work a year. But the 50% of lawyers who actually complete pro bono work average only 37 hours a year, according to Zachariah DeMeola, director of legal education at the University of Denver. He calculates that to provide every American facing a civil matter just one hour of legal help, we’d need 100% of lawyers to provide 180 hours of pro bono service.

Public interest law organizations that serve indigent clients face pressure to pick up the slack, but these organizations are not capable of meeting all the needs.

To help close the civil-justice gap, California should learn from South Dakota. Facing a dwindling lawyer population, legislators created the Rural Assistance Recruitment Program. Qualifying attorneys receive payments equivalent to nearly a year’s tuition at the University of South Dakota School of Law. California should do the same and more.

A model for a similar program already exists in California Volunteers, a state program designed to encourage civic engagement. Chief Service Officer Josh Fryday has launched a Climate Corps to address environmental issues around the state. The Legislature should appropriate funds to establish a California Justice Corps for graduates of California’s public law schools.

The evidence from South Dakota’s program makes clear that even one lawyer in a legal desert can dramatically improve access to the law. I have no doubt that many of my law school classmates would jump on the opportunity to apply their new degrees to helping close the justice gap.

No one would walk into a hospital and expect DIY care. No one should encounter a legal issue and be forced to go it alone. To help close the justice gap and make the California Justice Corps a reality, write to California Volunteers and let them know this is a priority.

Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of No One Left Offline, [email protected]. – CalMatters
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