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Who Accesses Justice?

Who Accesses Justice?

"A new type of legal professional

Across the United States, people in need of an attorney struggle to afford one. As a profession, attorneys have yet to achieve a comprehensive, sustainable answer to close this access-to-justice gap. American lawyers remain largely cost prohibitive. Legal aid can assist only so many of those who need but cannot afford legal assistance. Civil Gideon—the concept of a legal right to a lawyer in civil cases—remains a quixotic call for the foreseeable future. Pro bono legal assistance from private law firms or individual practitioners meets only a fraction of the demand, while challenges remain to its expansion. Courthouse help desks may (or may not) assist pro se litigants in filing the right form, but the need for their staff to remain neutral to a dispute constrains their ability to give case-specific advice and thus reduces their helpfulness. Similarly, special advocates who are not trained in law may help litigants navigate the nuts and bolts of the legal system or accompany clients to court, but they cannot advise on how a client should proceed. Even more sweeping deregulatory efforts that would allow nonlawyers to own and share in the profits of legal service endeavors, such as in the United Kingdom, have not been proven to ensure that low- and moderate-income populations will gain greater access to the courts (see “How Regulation Is—and Isn’t—Changing Legal Services”).

These shortcomings have affected the state of Washington as much as anywhere else. As exemplified in its 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study, Washington’s low-income population faces more than 85 percent of their legal needs without an attorney. An updated version of the study in 2015 revealed that the challenge continued over time—more than three-quarters of those with a civil legal matter did not seek or were not able to obtain legal help. Every day, Washington courts handle thousands of pro se litigants. In family law in particular, courts saw a spike in pro se litigants in the 1970s when divorce rates rose. Still today, many family law cases have at least one self-represented litigant. The Legal Services Corporation, the country’s largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans, has consistently reported during the past several years that one-third of all cases closed by their grantees dealt with family law. Without sufficient access to affordable legal advice, it is not uncommon for pro se parties to try, at their own risk, to glean knowledge about their cases and the legal system through websites or other sources offering unauthorized legal advice..."

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  • Access to Justice