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The widening justice gap and how it's hurting low-income Americans

gavel court law legal
Posted at 1:16 PM, May 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-20 15:16:15-04

The wage gap in the U.S. is leading to an even wider justice gap, where people who need legal help for civil issues such as bankruptcy and eviction are not able to afford it. The organizations keen on providing legal resources are struggling to meet the demand.

According to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a government nonprofit established by Congress in 1974, there were 1.9 million civil legal problems brought to its subsidiary offices in 2021, of which, only 500,000 were able to receive legal help. LSC says the remaining 1.4 million legal issues went without adequate, or any, legal help.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Jon Asher, executive director of Colorado Legal Services, which is partly funded by the Legal Services Corporation. “[Turning people away] is the most difficult part of our job.”

Asher says only 50% of clients who call his office are able to receive help due to a lack of resources, which include money and staff.

“[The people who call] need a lawyer, and we don’t have the resources to provide them. We try to triage cases so that we take those that are the most dire," he said.

According to the LSC, in Virginia courts, the win rate for represented defendants in eviction cases is 20-times greater than that of unrepresented defendants. In Ohio, the win rate is 50-times greater when a defendant is represented by a lawyer.

According to the Legal Services Corporation, 99% of plaintiffs in debt collection cases are represented by a lawyer, whereas only 14% of defendants have legal counsel.

In landlord-tenant cases, 81% of plaintiffs are represented compared to 21% of defendants, and in small claims, 76% of plaintiffs are represented by a lawyer, compared to 13% of defendants.

“It’s just been rough,” said Misty Davila, a Colorado resident who found a notice on her apartment door in March. It said she would be evicted if she did not pay her apartment complex $3,000.

According to Davila, her apartment complex cut rent in half during the first year of the pandemic in an effort to help its lower-income tenants. For Davila, that meant paying $600 monthly instead of $1,200, but she says she and other tenants were never notified that they would need to pay the extra money back.

She says the notice she found on her door was an attempt to collect it.

“I was scared,” she said. “You know, I was like my whole life’s going to change right now and I’ve been so comfortable with it, so that was a scary thought.”

Davila was one of the few who was able to find legal help through a nonprofit. She says within a few weeks, the issue was settled and she did not have to pay her apartment complex, or her lawyer, anything.

“I’ve been here and I’ve paid my bills, you know, so that was really a shock,” she said.