Thursday, February 03, 2011

Why Do We Want Legal Aid?


The financial crisis has put a tremendous burden on ordinary people as they tackle debt, housing foreclosures, and more. Finance has particularly difficult rules which makes it hard for anyone to deal with these problems. Expert help is usually needed, but it's not cheap.

This is where legal aid is supposed to step in and give assistance. Except on both sides of the Atlantic expenditures on legal aid are being reined in as part of government cutbacks. The result is a big rise in do-it-yourself representation (pro se or litigants in person), which is causing many problems for the justice system.

Two articles--one in the Guardian and another in the New York Times--speak to this issue and demonstrate to us the folly of cutting back legal aid/assistance to harshly.

Helen Grant, a 20 year veteran of legal aid practice, finds the combined effects of central government cuts, local government restrictions and falling charity contributions is forcing many lawyers to withdraw from publicly-funded practice. It leaves many people to fend on their own in a system which is not geared to help them. If these people decide to fight their own cases, the courts will be in an impossible position as they will have to offer some assistance while at the same time remaining impartial. We know the Citizens Advice Bureau in the Royal Courts of Justice is one of the busiest because it helps litigants in person.

Removing free advice in family, debt and housing will penalize the poor and most vulnerable. Ultimately, some other public service will have to step in at a later time to assist which will drive up costs more than if the matter had been dealt with at an earlier stage.

It's a sad legacy for a system that was introduced 60 years ago alongside free health services and education. Beveridge recommended in 1942 that government should "find ways of fighting the five 'Giant Evils' of 'Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness'." We haven't yet eradicated them nor are we likely to.

Perhaps one answer will be the rise of self-help classes for people who find themselves under threat. Those whose homes are threatened with foreclosure are finding they must go to court as pro se defendants. Groups like the Fair Lending Center in New Mexico offer courses on how to handle foreclosure cases. The chances of success are slim but the odds are better than not turning up to court at all. Here homeowners are mainly trying to restructure loans because they are unemployed and are faced with intransigent banks and lenders.

Legal aid lawyers are overloaded and can't cope. So a combination of judicial activism and not for profit action is beginning to restore some balance to the system. Judges in New Mexico require conferences aimed at settlement but the strain on the courts is telling.

In some counties of New York state foreclosure cases take up almost half the civil caseload. Other states find similar demands mounting. Self-help is no panacea but it gives some hope to those under threat.

The question is the same in both countries: By cutting legal aid are we going to worsen the situation for the people affected by the cuts and are we going to create greater burdens for the rest of society as a result?

The answer is clear: YES.
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