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Editorial: Unequal justice

‘If ever a time shall come when in this city only the rich man can enjoy law as a doubtful luxury, when the poor who need it most can not have it, when only a golden key will unlock the door to the court room, the seeds of revolution will be sown, the firebrand of revolution will be lighted and put into the hands of men, and they will almost be justified in the revolution which will follow.”

Those words were voiced in 1901, on the 25th anniversary of the Legal Aid Society, by Lyman Abbott, a pastor and the editor of the magazine The Outlook. Abbott turned out to be wrong. The poor are, in fact, denied equal access to the law, particularly in civil matters, and no revolution has ensued. In part, that’s because poor people are often unaware of potential legal remedies to the problems they face and have no faith that if they did complain, their voices would be heard.

New Hampshire’s primary sources of legal help for residents facing eviction or foreclosure, caught in child custody battles or denied government benefits – New Hampshire Legal Assistance, the state’s Pro Bono Referral System and the Legal Advice and Referral Center – are buried in pleas for help. A new report by the New Hampshire Access to Justice Commission estimates that only 6 percent of the legitimate legal needs of low-income residents are being met. As Dr. James Squires, a former state senator and past president of the New Hampshire Endowment for Health, told the commission, that statistic violates a democratic precept so fundamental that it’s repeated millions of times every day when Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance and its final words, “with liberty and justice for all.”

Legal services for the poor have continued to decline for want of support for decades, but they were decimated by the last Legislature. State funding for Legal Assistance was more than cut in half, from $1.7 million to $700,000 by a House led by a lawyer. Legal Assistance was forced to lay off 14 people and close its offices in Littleton and Nashua. Thousands more who needed legal help were turned away.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is also a lawyer, recognizes the injustice being done. Her budget calls for $400,000 in additional funding for Legal Assistance next year and an additional $100,000 the following year. That will help quite a bit, but it will still leave Legal Assistance down by a half-million dollars at a time when its other main source of funding, the interest lawyers earn on funds held in trust for clients, has been decimated by the near-zero interest rates. Recognizing that, several public-minded banks, among them Merrimack County Savings Bank, New Hampshire Savings and Centrix, agreed to pay roughly double the going rate on such funds. We encourage more banks to do the same.

The biggest contingent of people in need of legal help are single-parent households headed by low-income women. Assisting them through contributions to groups like Legal Assistance should be a goal of the state’s women’s clubs and civic organizations. The need is overwhelming. The commission estimates that while 149,100 low-income residents could have used legal help in 2010, just 8,403 received it. More state and federal support, of course, is crucial, but other avenues must be explored as well. Those include a surcharge on court filing fees, a requirement that law school students provide unpaid legal help to a nonprofit group before applying for a license to practice and a requirement that lawyers who do not provide the Bar’s recommended minimum of 30 hours of pro bono legal services per year pay to help support legal services for the poor.

If all of these things are tried and more, New Hampshire could come a lot closer to being a place that provides equal justice for all.

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