The Fight for Equality in Legal Representation

May 1, 2016 - Dan Rubins

May 1st, or May Day, has traditionally been a time for celebration across many cultures. In the 20th century, May 1st became a time for reflection and remembrance of the global labour movement. It seems only fitting that our inaugural blog post at Legal Robot coincides with this day and examines one fight for equality where Legal Tech can make a meaningful impact. This will be the first in a series of posts on Access to Justice.

We all have a constitutional right to effective legal representation in major criminal matters. However, there is no right to counsel for civil matters like domestic violence, eviction, and deportation hearings. Private legal representation is expensive and millions of people every year enter the court room Pro Se, or on their own behalf.

"Criminal convictions may put one behind bars of steel, but losing a basic human need in a civil case can put one behind equally unbreakable bars of poverty and despair."

Those with low-income, or who live below the poverty level are at the greatest disadvantage. They simply can not afford to hire a private attorney, and legal aid services have long waiting lists, or are very limited.

While there are many resources geared toward closing the legal services gap, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, the crisis continues. They estimate that over 45 million people who qualify for free legal aid are unable to gain access because it is so difficult to find.

There are several reasons for this. Lack of funding in many states has forced legal aid organizations to turn away those in need. The Boston Globe reported that in Massachusetts alone, over 30,000 families were forced to either forfeit their case, or represent themselves in 2013. Due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of court proceedings, many who entered the courtroom on their own lost their case.

In a US Department of Justice report, only 10% of Pro Se litigants were successful in deportation hearings, compared to 40% when represented by counsel.

For many, this means losing their home, property, or being forced into bankruptcy. One study concluded that in Staten Island, 91% of families facing foreclosure were without representation, and the majority were on non-traditional mortgages geared toward minorities and low-income families.

Even in criminal cases, those appointed a public defender face several disadvantages. Due to a lack of national standards, quality of representation can greatly vary. This is often a direct result of an overwhelming work load and lack of funding that limits the public defenders resources.

For some, the legal services gap can have serious ramifications. Many will plead guilty immediately for a reduced sentence. There have also been situations where legal representation was delayed so long, a person waiting for a pretrial spent longer in jail than their sentence would have been.

The gap in legal services is a growing crisis, but there several organizations that are fighting to help those in desperate need of legal help. In 2010, then Attorney General Eric Holder established the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ) at the US Department of Justice. ATJ’s main objective is to close the legal services gap by working from within the justice system.

They work with local, federal, and state agencies to make legal aid more accessible for everyone, regardless of income. Their goal is to help people understand their rights and to help produce outcomes that are fair for all parties involved. In the few short years since they were established, they have already began to make progress.

One such success occurred in 2013 in Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon. ATJ filed a class action lawsuit that alleged low-income defendants were being denied their sixth amendment rights to effective legal representation. They believed this was due to lack of monitoring and public defenders who were forced to take on too many cases at once.

ATJ requested the U.S. district court review the case and if violations were found to consider “workload controls for public defense providers, and appointment of an independent monitor to ensure compliance.” The court found the allegations were correct and ruled in favor of plaintiffs.

Despite efforts to close the legal services gap, there are still many who have no option but to represent themselves. We at Legal Robot do not believe a “robot lawyer” can (or should) represent someone in court, but we are working to provide new tools for everyone that help close the legal services gap.

We are inspired by those that work to tear down barriers, lower costs, and distribute legal knowledge as some of the more innovative startups in this industry like CaseText, LawGives, and Co/counsel as well as the early trail blazers at LegalZoom (despite their decidedly anti-robot commercial 🤕).

Our hope is that we, along with a strong community of legal innovators, will continue to find new ways to level the playing field and provide greater access through technology.