This year, this nation and England are commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was a charter King John and the barons entered to balance the king’s unbridled authority and the barons’ impeded liberties. The king and the barons met at Runnymede, establishing fundamental liberties which delineated separation of church and state, protection of property rights and of civil liberties, due process, access to swift justice in courts, and unfair and gross taxation. Though the charter was devised to settle power struggles between noblemen, lawyers in the United States and England credit the Magna Carta as offering one of the earliest protections of human rights under the rule of law, serving as the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution.
Our courts are theoretically accessible to all, but true access eludes many. There are not enough avenues for poor people to receive civil legal assistance. There is no right to counsel in civil cases. Though the principles of liberty and justice for all are the fabric of our justice system, for poor people, these principles often evade civil justice.
Nationwide, legal services organizations, as best they try, meet only 50 percent of legal needs of those below the poverty line.1 In North Carolina, a whopping 80 percent of civil legal aid needs of the poor are unmet.2 Law students represent the underserved, but can’t meet the demand. The North Carolina Bar Association sponsors 4ALL Service Day which addresses legal needs statewide and self-help forms can be helpful where available. The American Bar Association seeks to match unemployed law graduates with the overwhelming number of unmet legal needs. Of course to be successful, funding is essential.
Many countries guarantee the right to counsel for poor litigants in civil cases.3 Conversely, our country ranks 65 of 99 in the accessibility and affordability of civil justice. Our country’s most vulnerable citizens and veterans are in crisis when facing domestic violence, divorce, child custody, housing, consumer protection, employment and health benefits needs.5 For some families, the difference between shelter and homelessness is often legal aid representation.6 Many poor people do not view their problems as legal in nature or attempt to address them pro se. If lawyers and judges don’t address this void in accessibility to legal services and potential repercussions, who? If not now, when?
We must dispel the myth that poverty is a choice. We must also change our perception of the face of poverty and the value of impoverished families. The consequences of ill-handled legal matters can be detrimental whether one is of means or not. Poverty often compounds legal issues. Further, access to justice is good for North Carolina. When legal needs are met, cost burdens are eased on government systems. An investment in civil legal services results in cost savings of $48,775,276.7 While this discussion centers on civil access to justice, it is important to note that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel in criminal cases. More than 50 years after Gideon v. Wainwright,8 access to criminal justice remains prudent.
As lawyers and judges, we have pledged to uphold the rule of law. Inherent in our commitment to fairness and impartiality is access to our courts. For true access, courts and the legal process must be open to all, including the poor. Cheri Beasley