Our Turn: The importance of civil legal aid

Published: 6/11/2017 12:10:09 AM

As the committee of conference begins its work at the State House fine-tuning our state’s next two-year budget, there are many big issues on the table that will affect businesses and our citizens. We’d like to draw some attention to an item that has a crucial, often hidden impact on businesses: civil legal aid.

Most people are familiar with the warning given to criminals upon arrest, including the phrase, “If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided to you.” That right is protected by the Sixth Amendment and is upheld by the public defenders.

But most people are less familiar with the other side of the justice system, the civil courts. The civil court is where people fight to protect their rights as vital as those protected by the Sixth Amendment: their right to be free of domestic abuse, to keep a roof over their family and food on the table. But a lawyer will not be provided in a civil case if you cannot afford one. Often, people go it alone in a civil court and all too often they do not receive justice and become another dire statistic: homeless, abused, impoverished.

Angela and her daughter would have lost the roof over their heads if they had not been able to access free legal aid. Angela’s daughter has asthma, which worsened considerably last winter when the boiler in their apartment broke, leaving the apartment cold. The girl was so sick she had to stay home from school. Angela was distracted at work, and even missed a few days of work to stay home and care for her daughter. When she complained to her landlord and asked him to fix the boiler, he responded by filing an eviction notice.

Angela found help at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, where an advocate with years of housing law experience negotiated with the landlord to drop the eviction and fix the boiler. Angela’s daughter’s health improved, and so did her attendance at school, as well as Angela’s performance at work.

Angela is just one of the roughly 6,500 people NHLA helps each year, thanks to a patchwork of funding, including state funding, federal grants and private donations. In addition to providing assistance to our most vulnerable residents, NHLA has a positive impact on our state’s economy. A 2013 study showed that legal aid prevents up to $600,000 in costs due to homelessness in our communities annually. In 2016, NHLA also helped New Hampshire residents secure $1.1 million in federal benefits and child support payments for their clients. NHLA clients used those dearly needed resources to buy groceries, pay rent and pay utility bills, sending a positive ripple of economic impact into their communities.

Recognizing the value of investing in legal aid, Gov. Chris Sununu included a $300,000 annual increase in his budget. With that funding, NHLA can increase its services and staffing levels across our state.

As we all know, many people in our state are struggling. A staffing increase would allow NHLA to serve an additional 750 people or more each year. That’s possibly 750 more veterans who can access their health care and benefits; more survivors of domestic violence who will have legal advice when seeking protective orders; or more parents like Angela who will be able to provide safe, stable housing for their families.

Private legal counsel is expensive. Legal advice is most important in times of crisis when livelihoods, homes, health and safety are in jeopardy. If you are an employer, can you confidently say all of your employees could afford an attorney if needed?

Civil legal aid is how our country upholds the American ideal that the quality of justice you receive should not depend on how much money you have. We hope you will join us in thanking Gov. Sununu for seeing the need to increase access to justice for all our citizens and in asking your state representatives and senators to support the proposed increase in state funding for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

(Erica Bodwell is the vice president and general counsel of Northeast Delta Dental. Teresa Rosenberger is president of Devine Strategies. Both are Concord residents and members of the Campaign for Legal Services Leadership Council.)

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