Access to Justice
By Natalie-Claire Woods Lyda, Editor, Peachtree Papers, The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.
The United States Constitution provides that an attorney will be provided to those who cannot afford representation; nevertheless, this is only for criminal cases- leaving an enormous gap in representation for civil cases. Nearly half of all civil cases are represented pro se (where the parties represent themselves). Of those cases, there is a 75% failure rate for self-representation. The Constitution also declares that Americans have the right to Equal Justice Under the Law. The only problem is that justice isn’t equal when you’re an immigrant who is denied the right to an attorney while being detained in customs. Justice isn’t equal when you’re a Native American protecting your sovereign land and being assaulted and detained without an attorney. There are practically no rights to counsel for almost every type of civil case. This means a loving parent cannot afford competent representation in court to retain custody of their children. Victims of domestic violence don’t know their options when it comes to fleeing their abuser and finding sanctuary. Underrepresented people in the USA do not have an attorney on speed dial to help them on a moment’s notice.
The problem also exists on a global scale. The United Nations Global Goal 16 promotes access to justice as a critical part of sustainable development of peaceful and inclusive societies, yet little is being done to implement this immediately within the communities that need it the most: socioeconomically disadvantaged women and children, those with disabilities, LGBTQAI+ identifiers and ethnic/religious minorities.
Fortunately, the United States is addressing these right to counsel issues across various practice areas. In Mississippi, they are not only tackling the issue the right to counsel, but underpaid and under-resourced counsel within the child welfare system. In Alabama, a teen wanted to exit the foster system and move in with a willing family member; however, they were unable to because they did not have the requisite appointed attorney serving as a court appointed. Virginia is addressing the ability to label an addict a “habitual drunkard” without the individual in question having representation. San Francisco codified the right to counsel for eviction cases, and the rest of the country seems to be following suit.
Here in Atlanta, Access to Justice and the Civil Right to Counsel are issues that The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc. considers so important that we gifted over a third of our Centennial Gift in April of 2017 to the issue. The grant funds the Generational Poverty Law project of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Georgia Heirs Property Law Center and Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta with the goal of “creating a national model for providing holistic legal services to multi-generational families.”