Want a Shot at Boosting Your State's Economy? Invest in Civil Legal Aid.

According to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, legal aid boosted the state’s economy by $53 million in 2011 through federal benefits won and state costs saved.

Those numbers sparked legislators’ interest in Massachusetts and have led to a recent proposal to increase MA’s Legal Assistance Corporation’s funding. Here’s more from The Boston Globe:

Civil legal aid has always been underfunded. But over the past three years, the work of these attorneys has hung by a slender thread. State appropriations have shrunk, and private donations have dwindled. The result? Legal aid programs have lost a third of their staff in the last three years. For every five people who come to legal aid attorneys for help navigating the court system, three are turned away, says Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the largest funding source for legal civil aid in the state.

“They’re on their own,’’ Powers says. “They lump it or go to court by themselves.’’

Lumping it costs not just those who find themselves alone in the maze of our legal system, but all of us. The asthma sufferer whose medication is no longer covered by Medicare ends up in the far more expensive emergency room. A family unfairly evicted ends up in pricier temporary housing. A worker unjustly denied jobless benefits lands on welfare. A study by Powers’s outfit estimates that legal aid boosted the state’s economy by $53 million last year through federal benefits won and state costs saved.

Read the rest here.

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Civil Gideon? Should We Try Court-Appointed Attorneys for Civil Matters?

by Kristen Pavón

At a rules hearing in Wisconsin, more than two dozen legal professionals told the Supreme Court that they support a rule change requiring circuit court judges to appoint lawyers in some civil cases in which basic human needs were at stake.

This suggestion comes after the realization that pro se programs and legal aid organizations are just not enough.

Opposition to the idea is rooted in its unknown costs.

“The costs are unknown and could be huge,” said David Callender of the Wisconsin Counties Association. “The argument is always that it saves money on the back end. But we just don’t know.”

People have dubbed the idea — Civil Gideon — after the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, which established a poor defendant’s right to a free lawyer in a criminal cases.

There is still a lot of skepticism about how the program would work and if it would be worthwhile.

Get more details here.

My guess is that it would work the same way the public defender program does. Some states have tried similar programs. Do you know more about these programs?

What do you think about Civil Gideon? A workable solution?

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Access to Justice Issues Coming to a Head & a Broader Perspective

by Kristen Pavón

As if we needed more confirmation that there is an access to justice crisis in our nation, there seems to be more press coverage about the subject than ever.

I wonder if because the journalists are taking up the issue so vehemently (presumably because the public cares about the issue, or at least should care), will the lawmakers follow suit — will they hear us?

Today, this story ran in New York — For More and More Low-Income New Yorkers, Civil Legal Services Are Just Out of Reach.

Last week, out of Baltimore– At 100th anniversary, Md. Legal Aid seeing record caseload.

In Nebraska — More Nebraskans need legal aid services

In Phoenix — Lawyers say increased use of do-it-yourself legal services risky

From the New York Times– Legal Assistance in Civil Cases Under Growing Threat

From Center of Public Integrity — HUD cuts to devastate mortgage counseling agencies across nation

From HuffPost — Could More Public-Interest Lawyers in D.C. Help Prevent Domestic Tragedies?

You get my point. I only hope that some viable solutions are found created.

Looking more broadly, a similar public debate about the desperate need for legal aid funding and access-to-justice solutions is stirring in the U.K., Ireland, Lebanon, Laos and other countries.

Here are few of the recent headlines from around the world:

U.K. — Will legal aid changes limit access to justice?Legal aid threatened by coalition plans

Lebanon — Lack of state-funded legal aid hampers justice

Laos — Laos needs help developing legal aid

Ghana — Legal Aid Scheme urged to seek for further support

Tanzania — CJ identifies flaws in Constitution

Interesting.

So, here are a couple of questions I have… Can we look abroad for solutions to our access to justice crisis? How, if at all, does our access to justice crisis affect other countries’ justice issues?

Thoughts?

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