Below is an excerpt from a July 14 op-ed published by WGBH. The piece was written by John Carroll, Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, in support of increased civil legal aid funding.
Last month marked 800 years since the restless barons of England challenged King John to relinquish his claim of “Divine Right” and submit to the rule of law by signing the Magna Carta. Our legal legacy flows from that moment, through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, to our own American Revolution and Constitution and later, the creation of Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
The touchstone of this progression is that the law, at its most basic level, is about fairness and justice for all. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts and around the country, equal justice for all is still just an aspiration for many―not a reality. This is especially true in civil cases, where low-income litigants often face trials and administrative hearings without the advice or representation of an attorney. While those accused of committing a crime have a right to an attorney, people facing non-criminal legal issues related to some of life’s most basic rights and protections—safe shelter, fair employment, freedom from discrimination, and access to health care, to name a few—have no such right. As Martha Bergmark, Executive Director of the national organization Voices for Civil Justice, herself a former legal aid attorney, recently put it in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Many people suffer crushing losses in court not because they’ve done something wrong, but simply because they don’t have legal help.”
Civil legal aid exists to bridge this justice gap and protect the most vulnerable among us, providing free legal advice and representation to people living at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or $30,313 a year for a family of four. Civil legal assistance touches matters of housing, employment, domestic violence, and family law. It has the potential to change people’s lives, helping them stay in their homes and at their jobs and access health coverage, education and other benefits to which they are entitled.