LEGAL SERVICES FOR THE POOR AND THE NOT SO POOR
More than a third of the U.S. population have at least one legal problem annually, but only one in ten consults an attorney (Shdaimah, 2009). A frequently cited survey carried out for the ABA found that low- and moderate-income families generally do not seek legal help for their problems. Although 41% of the poor and 52% of moderate-income families encountered at least one legal problem in the 1990s, 71% of the poor and 61% of moderate-income families did not turn to attorneys for help with this problem. The legal problems faced by these people were mainly consumer issues and personal finance (Hansen, 1994; Kritzer and Silbey, 2003).
Why do so many people with legal problems not seek legal help? A main reason is that attorneys are expensive, definitely too expensive for many people who might want to hire an attorney Consequently, under a celebrated 1963 Supreme Court decision,
Gideon v. Wainwright, indigent defendants in serious criminal cases must be represented, usually by public defenders on the state’s payroll or by court-appointed private attorneys. Unfortunately, many of these public defenders and court-appointed attorneys are overworked, and some are plainly incompetent (Hines, 2001). At the same time, a court’s practice of appointing private attorneys for defendants is unpopular among these attorneys. It is damaging to their incomes, for they receive only nominal compensation for their services, and it interferes with their regular activities.
The plight of indigent criminal defendants is further complicated in many instances by the absence of some basic legal work that their more affluent counterparts would have. For example, most lawyers appointed to represent the poor do not hire private investigators to look for witnesses or evidence. Most do not get expert witnesses, like psychiatrists or pathologists, to help challenge the prosecution’s case. Most do not take the time to go to the scene of crime, and some do not even make a jail or prison visit to discuss the case with their clients. A study of 137 New York homicide cases completed by court-appointed lawyers in 2000 shows that in 42 of them—nearly one-third—the lawyers did less than a week of preparation, raising questions about their effort and thoroughness. Only 12 spent at least 200 hours—5 weeks or more—investigating and preparing their cases, a sign of “appropriate diligence,” according to legal experts (Fritsch and Rohde, 2001:27).
Some lawyers provide legal services pro bono publico (for the public good) for indigents (Granfield and Mather, 2009). From time to time, various bar associations have recommended that all lawyers engage in such endeavors. But many attorneys cannot afford to do so, and others, particularly those who work for large firms, are discouraged from doing so. Many large firms are reluctant to take on pro bono criminal-law work, divorce, housing disputes, and consumer problems because their corporate clients would regard such cases as unseemly.
In civil cases, the poor can gain access to lawyers through public or private legal-aid programs. As part of the War on Poverty program in the 1960s, the Office of Economic Opportunity established neighborhood law offices to serve the indigents. In 1974, much of legal-aid work was assumed by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which began distributing money to several hundred legal service organizations across the nations.
Because LSC-funded attorneys often were fighting local governments and influential businesses, LSC soon became controversial. President Reagan tried in the early 1980s to phase the program out, but Congress balked. As a result of financial cutbacks, the availability and quality of legal services for the poor continues to decline in many states (Angones, 2017); a draft budget by the Trump Administration in early 2017 listed eliminating funding for LSC altogether, ending legal aid for millions of low-income people (McCarthy, 2017).
The work of legal services attorneys is concentrated in five main areas—family, consumer, housing, landlord-tenant, and welfare. To qualify, applicants must have proof of indigence and have a case that falls within the mandate of legal services. This mandate includes family matters like child support, spouse abuse, and divorce; housing; food stamps and other government benefits; consumer issues, and a variety of other matters. However, the work done by legal services does not begin to fill the vast need for their services. Compounding this problem, many low-income people with legal needs do not ask legal aid programs for help for at least one of three reasons: (1) they do not know these programs exist, (2) they do not know they qualify for help from these programs, or (3) they assume they still would not be able to obtain help from a program.
To help provide legal services to indigent clients, bar associations and law schools have established legal clinics in many communities across the nation (Davis, 2017). A legal clinic is a high-volume, high-efficiency law setting that caters to low-income people and provides free or low-cost services. Legal clinics build case volume primarily through advertising and publicity They achieve efficiency by using systematic procedures, by relying heavily on standard forms, and by delegating much of the routine work to law students and/or to
paralegals (nonlawyers trained to handle routine aspects of legal work). These clinics focus on legal problems that are fairly common, such as wills, personal bankruptcy, divorces, and traffic offenses.