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