UN’s Plight for the Impoverished and Under-Represented

The United States is facing more scrutiny for the unequal access to legal support that low-income individuals and minorities face. On March 13th and 14th, in Geneva the United Nations Human rights Committee will be set to ask the United States to account for its widening civil justice gap. While counsel is guaranteed in criminal cases, millions of low-income and poor minorities are still faced with civil issues, including eviction, foreclosure, domestic violence, termination of subsistence income, loss of child custody or an immigration removal proceeding, and are not afforded the right the counsel as in criminal cases. Fewer than one in five civil legal problems experienced by low income people are addressed with the assistance of legal representation. This principally impacts racial minorities, immigrants and women. Despite the US Constitution not prescribing a right to legal representation in civil cases, in 1992, the US ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; which committed itself to ensuring meaningful access to justice for all its citizens, which include access to representation in civil cases.

While there will always be room for improvement, in my experience, there has been little qualms about providing legal representation for lower income and underrepresented groups. Throughout my judicial internship in Putnam County Courts, individuals who were unable to pay for legal counsel were always afforded the opportunity to apply for legal aid. Granted, this allowance was premised on the fact that they were poor enough to gain access to legal aid. If not, individuals who have suffered through any type of civil litigation were left to their own devices and usually utterly failed, or forced into settlement, when adjudicating pro se. Furthermore, Pace Law School has provided many opportunities for low-income individuals to get support. Clinics, such as Neighborhood Justice, Immigration Clinic and others seek to support low-income individuals who need help when their rights and being abused. While the United States as a whole may be suffering, there are instances where counties in New York and other areas are trying to repair the damage of the past.

Further, in 2010, the Obama administration created the Access to Justice Initiative, which works with the US DOJ, across federal agencies, and with state and local justice systems to increase access to counsel and legal assistance in both criminal and civil cases. The UN review will determine whether this is sufficient for the citizens of the US and if more should be done to help them.

What more should be done to help under-represented individuals have their day in court? Should more money be available to Public Interest Law? What is your experience with Public Interest Law and how has it shaped your beliefs?

Source: The National Law Journal



  1. I believe that the United States needs to be more efficient in widening the civil justice gap. The scrutiny is founded; the underrepresented are struggling day in and day out. Counsel in criminal cases is guaranteed but inadequate nonetheless, but more importantly, no counsel is guaranteed in civil cases. Legal issues such as evictions, foreclosure, domestic violence, and removal proceedings are in some instances life and death situations, and there is no help offered to low income individuals.

    Clinics such as Empire Justice, Legal Services of Hudson Valley and Pace Women’s Justice Center seek to support low-income individuals who need help when their rights and being abused to the best of their ability, and although they do a great job there aren’t enough resources or staff to help everyone. Thus, only the most severe cases receive help, and the rest are left in the dust, uninformed and standing to lose their livelihood. More money should definitely be put into public interests programs to help the underrepresented receive the legal services they need in order for justice to be served.

  2. This article poses a very troubling reality that exists in the legal system of the United States. While US citizens have a right to counsel for criminal cases, the US incarcerates the most number of people among other world nations. While having five percent of the world’s population, the US has twenty-five percent of the world’s prison populations. An extremely disproportionate number of these inmates are minorities with low income.

    While some may argue that the right to counsel is necessary for criminal cases because an individual’s liberty is at stake, the US fails to recognize the impact many civil case judgments have on low-income individuals. As Mr. Pedraza points out, many civil cases result in eviction, foreclosure, and termination of subsistence income. This leads to increased homelessness and leaving these individuals reliant on welfare or unemployment compensation, ultimately imprisoning them in a trap, with little hope of economic improvement.

    While there are a number of excellent public interest programs, whose help provides an invaluable experience for a number of low-income individuals, public interest law is financially limited to perform work above and beyond that is needed to break this pattern of injustice for the poor.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a widening gap in regards to legal representation for low-income individuals. It seems ridiculous that the United States is willing to offer representation to an individual who has committed a rape or murder but they have no avenues for individuals who seek to protect themselves from losing their homes or the litany of beatings suffered by the hands of their significant others. The wholly unequal representation of low-income populations in the United States is astounding and it is truly unfortunate that more hasn’t been done in the past to protect the interests of these individuals. This scrutiny is well warranted and perhaps shaming the United States in the international community is the necessary tool to initiate change. Until these changes are made on a national level it goes without saying that more money is needed to continue to fund public interest facilities that continue to fill the void left by the United States government.

  4. I agree that on a federal and state level, advocates are working to change this trend. The New York State probono requirement for law school graduates is an example of these attempts. The issue of compensation for lawyers who help low-income citizens, should be discussed. The three most common types of fees used by attorneys are hourly, contingent, and flat. Criminal, corporate, and divorce cases are known for being charged hourly. Contingent fees, which are normally used in personal injury cases, may be the best solution to help low-income citizens. This is because the client owes the attorney no fee upfront, and pays a percentage upon positive settlement or verdict. The issue however, is that, “if the subject area of the case is one of high risk to the attorney, such as exposure to liability, then it is likely that the hourly fee will be greater.” A contingent fee may not be an appropriate balance for the risk that the attorney takes on with these types of civil cases. “Examples of potential risk scenarios include securities, estate planning, tax, and real estate matters.”

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