Below is an excerpt from a June 15 op-ed, written by Justine Dunlap and published by South Coast Today, in support of increased civil legal aid funding.
Lawyers — we love to hate them until we need one. The good news is that, in certain critical situations, lawyers are available. They are a constitutional entitlement for the criminally accused. They can be retained on a contingency fee basis in certain kinds of cases. Legal services may be available through a work-based pre-paid plan. And, if you have lots of money, legal services are, of course, readily procurable. That’s the stuff of legal “dream teams.”
The bad news: In other critical circumstances, a lawyer’s service is out of reach, particularly for persons of low income. In certain areas of the law, like landlord/tenant and family law cases, many cases proceed with one or both sides not having a lawyer. In legal parlance, these self-represented parties are called pro se litigants. In some cases — like small claims court — pro se litigants are appropriate. In those cases, because the financial stakes are low, the system is set up so that lawyers are not necessary. But that is not true generally. Most lawsuits involve high stakes — financial or otherwise — and do not proceed well without lawyers who know the substantive law and procedural rules. Thus, although one might have rights provided under the law, those rights are difficult to assert or achieve without a lawyer.
Our society is sometimes criticized for being too litigious. But those who need lawyers are often brought into court by others. A tenant, for instance, whose landlord may be seeking to evict him, or a consumer being sued by an unscrupulous lender. Other times people need to affirmatively seek the court’s aid. A victim of intimate abuse may need legal protection to begin to remove herself or himself from an abuser’s control. The rights that each of these persons have are less likely to be realized if there is not a lawyer available to assist.