Martha Fuller Clark: Legal aid puts justice within reach for low-income women

  • Clark

Published: 8/12/2017 12:10:03 AM

When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we end with the words “liberty and justice for all.” But in New Hampshire, not everyone has equal access to justice.

Our court system is complicated, which means justice is often out of reach for people who do not have the means to pay for legal help. I, along with about 30 other women, recently attended a very informative presentation at the Women’s City Club in Portsmouth hosted by the N.H. Campaign for Legal Services to draw attention to the fact that out of the more than 10,000 people in New Hampshire who benefited from legal assistance from New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice and Referral Center this past year more than 60 percent of those people were low-income women.

Even more interesting in the presentation was the fact that more than 300 of those women were from Rockingham County. Many of us were startled to learn of such need for justice in the county with the highest median household income in New Hampshire, which is why I am sharing it with you today. You may also be startled to learn that legal aid handled more than 1,100 cases in Merrimack County last year.

While most of us are aware that for people accused of crimes, public defenders provide advice and representation to protect their right to justice. But in the civil courts – where people may contest an illegal eviction or foreclosure, or where a domestic violence victim petitions for a protective order, for example – there is no guarantee of counsel if you can’t pay for it.

NHLA assists and represents people in all levels of court and administrative hearings and advocates for changes to the laws and rules that affect low-income families.

LARC advises people in times of legal crisis, maintains an online library of self-help resources and connects people with other programs, such as volunteer attorneys.

The Campaign for Legal Services role is to raise funds each year for both the NHLA and LARC in order to ensure that these programs will have the resources to serve all those in need of legal aid, especially women.

It is important that when a woman stands up to her landlord to complain about mold or vermin, broken appliances or faulty plumbing, risking being evicted as retaliation, legal aid is there to defend her.

It is even more important that when a woman is in an abusive relationship and worries she can’t afford to leave, legal aid is there to advise her of her rights and help her get justice.

We know that when a society supports women, life improves for children. And we know then when women’s basic needs for safety and security are met, business needs are met, as they are able to show up and focus on their work.

So when legal aid helps women, it helps children, it helps employers, it helps all of us. And we know that legal aid works because when a woman applies for a protective order on her own, she has about a 33 percent chance of receiving it. When she has help from legal aid, her chances of getting that protective order go up to 80 percent.

At the Women’s City Club event we heard several stories of success from legal aid attorneys working on behalf of female clients. One woman had fled an abuser and was trying to make ends meet for herself and her children. Because she hadn’t known how to navigate the details of the court paperwork, she was awarded a mere $50 in child support each month. With guidance from legal aid, she was able to submit a petition for adequate support and gained the confidence to stand in court to make her case.

Now, she and her children are able to afford a safe home where they can begin rebuilding their lives.

Learning about the compelling need for legal services, especially for low-income women in our own county and across the state was extremely enlightening. Clearly supporting the important work being done by New Hampshire Legal Services is something we all should consider supporting.

I hope you will join me in providing that support, especially for the low-income women in Rockingham County, by contacting the Campaign for Legal Services today at to learn more and to make your contribution to this very important organization.

Equal standing before the law is a fundamental American value for all; it should not just be a privilege for the few.

(State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark is a Portsmouth Democrat.)

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