Below is an excerpt from a February 29 op-ed, published by MetroWest Daily News, supporting increased civil legal aid funding in Massachusetts.
Americans like to think of the law as a great equalizer, the courts as instruments of justice in which the scales are balanced, where every party has an equal chance to make a case and win a judgment. We like to think, as Bob Dylan wrote, “that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom.”
The reality is that the scales are weighted against anyone who goes into court without a lawyer. That’s why the Supreme Court has ruled that if a defendant in a criminal case cannot afford a lawyer, a public defender will be appointed to represent him or her. Without a boost from an attorney, most people simply cannot climb the ladder of law.
But the same isn’t true in civil court. If you have a dispute with a landlord or tenant, if you’re fighting foreclosure, seeking a divorce, resolving a consumer complaint, fighting for custody of your children or involved in a hundred other matters that bring people into civil courts, it’s up to you to find a lawyer or find yourself at a distinct disadvantage when you come before a judge.
The best hope for most poor people in these situations is to get a lawyer through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and its associates, which include MetroWest Legal Services, headquartered in Framingham. The need is great – up to 90 percent of complainants in state family and probate courts cannot afford a lawyer, according to one estimate.