Imagine attending a court proceeding only to find yourself lost in a maze of legal jargon without an attorney, and little to no understanding of the legal system or options you may have as a litigant. For many people this is a reality.
In a society with vast amounts of economic inequality, effective legal representation has become a privilege that only the affluent can afford. Our legal system is one system filled with complexity, contradictions and privilege. Free legal services can act as an equalizer for people who, because of life circumstances, cannot afford thousands of dollars to retain an attorney, and therefore do not have equal access to justice. But unfortunately, there are not enough free legal services to go around.
For civil proceedings, such as disability appeals or landlord-tenant cases, there is no guaranteed right to counsel, leaving many to fend for themselves in court. Many nonprofits are underfunded and many law firms simply do not have the staffing for pro bono attorneys to be able to meet this need for underserved and poor communities.
People who live in poverty, have mental illness or have little to no education find themselves at a loss and rarely, if ever, can afford adequate representation for civil court proceedings. Since society has yet to acknowledge this need in the form of laws ensuring civil legal representation for all American citizens, the only way for underserved communities to obtain civil representation is through this very limited number of pro bono attorneys.
For many indigent clients, representation by an attorney gives them access to legal remedies they would otherwise not have had. In housing court, nearly all landlords have attorneys; very few tenants do, and the differences can lead to horrifying outcomes for unrepresented tenants. The same holds true for people who have been denied disability benefits: Appeals of these cases can take a year or more. In housing and disability appeals cases, having adequate representation can mean the difference between losing your residence and becoming homeless, or being able to receive disability benefits to which you are entitled.
It is important to note underserved communities are not the only people to benefit from receiving free civil legal services. Many attorneys also find it rewarding to be able help correct a wrong and report feeling at peace about their work. These attorneys find value in playing a critical role in their clients obtaining equal access to the courts, and therefore, justice. For this reason many law firms have incorporated pro bono legal services programs into their practices, ensuring people who need their services the most receive them, free of cost.
As an advocate for underserved, low-income people in our society, I work (and challenge others) to lobby for legislation which would close the wealth inequality gaps in our courts, addresses the racial disparities in our legal system, and infuses resources to underserved communities, which would eliminate the need for pro bono representation in the first place. Imagine what justice could look like if all Americans had access to lawyers, in both criminal and civil proceedings.
Johnny Perez is the Safe Reentry Advocate for the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project, a nonprofit law firm providing pro bono legal services to underserved populations in NYC.