We are a nation built upon the concept of equal justice for all. We pledge allegiance to our flag "with liberty and justice for all." We embrace "equal justice under law" as a national ideal. We expect our society to observe the rule of law. But people living in poverty often cannot hire a lawyer when they need one to solve pressing civil legal problems. During this recession, an increasing number of people will be turning to legal-aid programs because they have no place else to go for assistance.
Contrary to common myths about low-income people, these folks are not freeloaders skimming the system. Typically, these low-income Americans are women seeking protection from abuse, mothers trying to obtain parenting plans with child support orders, families facing wrongful evictions or foreclosures that could leave them homeless and individuals who have lost jobs.
Thirty-five years ago this month, Congress and President Richard Nixon created the Legal Services Corp. to promote equal access to justice and to fund nonprofit programs that provide high-quality civil legal assistance to the nation's poor. In Montana, the Montana Legal Services Association has been a recipient of grants from LSC, serving nearly a quarter of a million Montanans with civil legal problems since 1974. Individual attorneys and law firms, the State Bar of Montana and local bar associations, the Montana Justice Foundation, the Montana Supreme Court and many private foundations donated time and money for legal aid to the poor.
Millions of Americans are, for the first time, finding themselves facing poverty because of the recession. The challenge for civil legal aid programs is enormous. Nearly 51 million Americans, including almost 190,000 in Montana, qualify for civil legal aid from the 137 nonprofit programs around the country that currently receive funding from LSC.
Even before the recession, LSC-funded programs were not able to help all the people who were looking for help. In 2005, LSC found that for every eligible client LSC-funded programs were able to assist, one eligible applicant was turned away. Of course, LSC understates the magnitude of the "justice gap" since only people aware of services and those who came to a legal aid office were included in the data. In Montana, thousands of low-income residents with legitimate legal problems are unable to obtain the assistance of a lawyer, according to current estimates.
In Montana as elsewhere, funding and resources do not keep pace with the demand for civil legal aid. When LSC was created, MLSA had sufficient funding for nearly 40 attorneys. Now, 35 years later, MLSA employs less than half that number.
Regrettably, the majority of Americans living in poverty do not have access to justice. At a time of economic hardship, governments, businesses and community organizations must step up efforts to provide high-quality civil legal assistance to the poor. So, as we celebrate LSC's work and efforts for the past 35 years, we need to recognize that the promise of equal justice remains elusive for many. Times like these require all citizens to keep working to make the promise of equal justice a reality for all.
Klaus D. Sitte of Missoula is executive director of Montana Legal Services Association.