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Editorial: A campaign for wider civil justice

Last modified: 8/30/2015 10:35:36 PM
Many attorneys, no matter how long they’ve been practicing law, will tell you they still get butterflies when they enter a courtroom. Just imagine how a single mother seeking protection from an abusive boyfriend would feel under the same circumstances. Now imagine she is alone in the courtroom, without legal representation.

Every year, the New Hampshire Campaign for Legal Services seeks out private donations to fund the work of the Legal Advice and Referral Center and New Hampshire Legal Services, two organizations that assist people who need advice or representation in civil cases but lack the means to hire a lawyer.

The work the groups do often means the difference between housing and homelessness, proper health care and rapid deterioration, safety and danger. In the context of domestic violence, the importance of legal representation is dramatically revealed in a statistic included in a report released by the Institute for Policy Integrity last month: “83 percent of victims represented by an attorney successfully obtained a protective order, as compared to just 32 percent of victims without an attorney.”

The stakes couldn’t be clearer: Legal aid can be a matter of life and death.

Of the nearly 14,000 people the two groups helped last year (a small fraction of those in need), 3,948 were children, 1,433 were disabled, 649 were seniors and 417 were veterans. Approximately 78 percent needed legal assistance in housing or family law, such as fighting eviction or pursuing a legal separation. Another 13 percent needed help securing benefits to which they were entitled. Without services such as the LARC’s hotline and informational website or the NHLA’s counsel and representation, the clients would have been forced to navigate the system alone or simply succumb to more powerful forces. Neither option should be acceptable in a country that prides itself on the notion of equal justice.

The legal assistance provided by LARC and NHLA, as well as the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Pro Bono Referral Program, are crucial, but it’s a shame the services must exist at all. It’s a shame, too, that the Campaign for Legal Services needs to pass the hat every year in an attempt to fill a gaping hole in the American system of justice. Their goal this year is $350,000, and we urge businesses, the legal community and individual donors to do what they can to help. But significantly more help, and more reliable funding, is needed to meet the demand.

There are three main sources of legal aid funding: the state and federal government, fundraising campaigns and something called IOLTA, which stands for Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts. The level of state funding depends on who is in charge in Concord, and annual fundraising depends on donors’ ability to give. As volatile as those sources are, they’ve got nothing on IOLTA. When a lawyer holds client funds of amounts too small to warrant their own interest-bearing account, those funds, by law, are placed into a pooled trust account and the interest goes toward legal aid. Trust account revenue fluctuates with deposit interest rates, so funding dries up significantly when the economy stalls. There needs to be a more stable funding system.

The ideal solution is “civil Gideon,” which is the civil law version of the criminal right to counsel established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling. While financial realities may make that a pipe dream, it’s in New Hampshire’s present and long-term economic interest to find a way to make a greater investment in legal aid services.

According to a study funded by the American Bar Association, just one year of legal aid cases has an $84.4 million impact on the New Hampshire economy over a 10-year period, a figure that includes direct benefits to clients, a lower social service burden on local communities and greater spending power among low-income residents.

While we wait for lawmakers to do the math, those who provide legal aid must continue to look for creative ways to extend services to those who can’t afford to pay. A big step in the right direction would be for the legal community to forge deeper relationships with the state’s social service organizations, which would benefit all involved. The state should also refuse to wake from the dream of “civil Gideon” and a society where all have equal access to justice.


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