Justice in jeopardy

The problems outlined at the first national hearing of the ABA Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System sounded like a report from a third world country. The state court funding crisis stretches coast to coast. There are courts begging for pens because their office supply budget is so low. Other courts are demanding that filers bring their own paper. 

Some are moving so slowly on basic, important matters like child custody, that the child becomes an adult before the case is resolved. The problem affects every region, every size state, and it doesn’t matter if the state is red or blue. Most state courts are funded at less than two percent of the entire state budget. Less than two percent for what the founders insisted be a third, co-equal branch of government.

This is appalling. And access to justice will worsen if Congress slashes its funding of Legal Services Corporation, the go-to provider of civil legal help for poor and working class Americans. Right now, proposals are on the table to cut legal aid for the rest of this year by $70 million. These are people dealing with issues like eviction, domestic violence, and unpaid child support.

Legal aid providers tell us that many of their clients are people they’ve never seen before-the new poor, the newly struggling due to long-term unemployment. Legal aid lawyers stand between these people and total financial and legal disaster. We need Congress to act now and make it clear that legal aid is simply off limits in this economy.

The ABA also is deeply concerned about the increasing inability of average Americans to access justice. More than 7,500 lawyers and judges recently participated in an ABA survey. The overwhelming majority of respondents said that there are significant barriers to accessing courts and almost all of them (94 percent) cite affordability as a culprit. 

Some 88 percent of those respondents believe that cost is now holding back middle class clients from pursuing legal issues, and 78 percent believe small businesses are increasingly unable to obtain speedy, reasonably affordable justice. Delays caused by funding-starved court operations are reportedly driving the increase in litigation costs. 

It also must be financially viable for young lawyers to deliver the legal services our friends and neighbors need. The ABA is working to help law students make wise financial choices so they can be our next generation of “main street” lawyers. Federal loan forgiveness programs for those pursuing lower-paying careers as prosecutors, defenders, and legal aid providers also are crucial.

Access to justice is fundamental. For me, it also is personal.

My family fled Cuba in 1961 because our freedom was being destroyed. The Cuba we saw crumbling had a constitution with words identical to those of the U.S. Constitution. 

It takes more than words to protect a democracy. Today’s problems with access to justice threaten America, because they cut off the average person from a basic benefit of our system of government. We cannot fight for the rule of law abroad and lose it here at home. It is time to act. Let’s do it, together. 

Stephen N. Zack is the President of the American Bar Association.