For the many people facing a life crisis, the most effective and powerful response often includes some sort of legal help. Help does not always mean having a lawyer in court. Individuals benefit from information about their rights, advice, and guidance through complex legal processes and systems. A founding principle of this country is justice for all. What many people do not know is that legal representation is guaranteed only in criminal cases. In civil matters – including housing, consumer loans, debt collection, student loans, and bankruptcies – in order to have legal help, individuals must be able to pay for it.
State and national studies reveal that 80% of the serious civil legal needs of low-income people go unmet. While 60 million Americans have income levels that qualify them for civil legal aid, only one million of them will actually receive that support because of limited resources and funding. In the most recent two decades, as the number of people in poverty has increased, funding for civil legal aid has declined almost 60%.
Legal help is especially important for the poor or nearly poor, as unresolved financial problems can quickly tear families apart and drive them further into poverty. Most people do not realize that they can have their homes fraudulently taken from them, be harassed by illegal debt collectors, have their credit ratings destroyed, and have their futures damaged by predatory lending practices and yet have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect themselves.
Ill-intended lenders, debt collectors, and others who would prey on the poor set up complicated processes to make it difficult for those negatively impacted to redress their problems. The legal system – often the only path of recourse against fraud and other illegal practices – is also complex and difficult to navigate. People in poverty and near poverty often do not have the resources to protect their rights.
According to Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General, civil legal aid does not only open doors to the justice system, but it also provides a critical reinvestment in communities. Civil legal aid saves taxpayers dollars by keeping families together, protecting patient’s health, increasing access to public benefits, reducing domestic violence, and offering indigent citizens a way out of poverty. The economic benefit is more important now that ever before, as every level of government and the non-profit and private sectors struggle to meet constantly growing demands with increasingly limited budgets.
To read about the need for civil legal help on the website for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, click here.
The Northwest Consumer Law Center provides the foregoing content for informational purposes only and not as legal advice. Links to external websites do not constitute an endorsement of those websites or a guarantee of the veracity of their content.