Dick Thornburgh: Ensuring justice for all with legal aid
Legal aid services are a lifeline for many, and essential to our system of justice
March 5, 2017 12:00 AM
By Dick Thornburgh
A new report that draws attention to the problems poor people face in finding civil legal aid in Pennsylvania takes me back to the early days of my legal career when I was a founding member of Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA) in Pittsburgh. That experience was a personal watershed moment for me, one that cemented my path to public service. It also confirmed my passionate belief that our civil justice system cannot work for low-income individuals and families unless we adequately fund programs to provide them with lawyers at a time in their lives when basic human needs are at stake.
I am concerned that we are headed in the wrong direction. In the 1970s, NLSA had 75 attorneys. Today, it is down to 24 lawyers serving four counties. At best, Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN) programs are only able to meet about 20 percent of the need.
Clients who may be facing wrongful evictions, mortgage foreclosures, wage claims, child custody disputes or denial of essential benefits often arrive at legal aid offices in crisis, often with court hearings in a matter of hours or days. They are, overwhelmingly, single mothers, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities. In difficult economic times, families once considered middle class may suddenly find themselves in need of legal aid, and poor enough to qualify for services.
Brenda is a prime example. She came to NLSA after having depleted her life savings in legal fees trying to protect her 9-year-old twins from their physically abusive father. With help from her NLSA attorney, Brenda was able to get a protection order that stopped all unsupervised visits for three years. Today, the children are thriving in college (one was high school valedictorian). Best of all, they feel safe.
But what about the mother in similar circumstances who is turned away because NLSA lacks funding to serve her? As a parent, grandparent and great-grandparent myself, I hate to even imagine the consequences. And what about the family facing a wrongful eviction? The impact on the family would be devastating, and it would cost the state far more to address the family’s homelessness than it would to provide an attorney to keep the family in its home.
At the same time, there is much to celebrate in the new report released by the General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, which studied the commonwealth’s “Access to Justice Act.” The report lauds the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) Board and PLAN on its use of filing fee revenues to provide civil legal aid. In addition, it significantly found that clients receiving representation from a legal aid program are satisfied with the services they receive. And it concluded that legal aid services have a positive economic impact on the communities where they are situated — citing a report that found an $11 return for every dollar invested, through crime prevention, retention of employment and much more.
That said, the report arrives at a time when the federal government’s commitment to legal services is in question. Just very recently, there were news reports of possible defunding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) entirely, which would devastate the ability of legal aid programs to serve clients. That would affect every city, county and state in the country, including tens of thousands of residents here in Pennsylvania. Which is why I am calling upon members of Congress from Pennsylvania to ensure that the LSC continues to provide critical support to legal aid programs in this state and throughout the United States.
Even if we can preserve LSC funding — already reduced in purchasing power to a fraction of what it was during the 1970s — we must redouble our efforts to diversify financial support for these vital services. We must start by asking that the General Assembly reauthorize the state’s Access to Justice Act filing fee, which is currently set at $4 per filing, and increase that fee to $6 to ensure that we can increase our capacity to provide lawyers to households in crisis.
The families who benefit from legal aid are our neighbors. They are our co-workers and our relatives. They may even be us. Fairness in the justice system should not depend on how much money a person has. I’m reminded of the words of one of my heroes, the judge and judicial philosopher Learned Hand, who said: “Thou shalt not ration justice.” The surest way to comply with Judge Hand’s injunction is for us to step up to the plate and do our part to preserve, protect and defend funding for vital civil legal aid services.
Dick Thornburgh is the former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. attorney general. He serves as counsel to the international law firm of K&L Gates LLP in its Pittsburgh office.
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