Despite a continued need for legal representation, few Americans hire attorneys.
Countering the notion that American society is increasingly litigious, multiple reports show less than a quarter of all people who experience civil legal problems hire professional representation. A 2017 report from the World Justice Report found only 23 percent of Americans turned to an authority for advice or representation for a legal issue, despite 48 percent of respondents indicating they experienced a civil legal problem in the last two years.
Among those problems, housing, consumer issues and money troubles were the most commonly reported — all problems that have a direct impact on a person’s quality of life and that, if unattended, can lead to a loss of transportation, employment, housing or other necessities.
With multiple organizations reporting similar results, legal aid experts said there are two questions the legal community should seek to answer: what’s keeping people, particularly those from low-income communities, from hiring legal help; and how can the profession reverse the trend?
Step 1: Finding the ‘why’
Low-income Americans are likeliest to encounter barriers — particularly financial — to seeking justice and are thus less likely to seek advice or representation from an attorney. A study from the Legal Services Corporation confirms this notion, finding low-income citizens will seek legal advice for only 20 percent of the civil legal problems they face.
Aside from financial restraints, low-income citizens often forgo representation because they don’t realize their issues are legal. According to the LSC report, 20 percent of respondents declined to talk to an attorney simply because they didn’t know an attorney could help. Similarly, when the WJP asked respondents to rate the severity of their problems on a scale of 0 to 10 — with 10 being the worthiest of legal intervention — the average response was 7.
“Part of it is they aren’t seeing their disputes as serious enough to merit turning to a resolution mechanism,” said Sarah Long, director of the WJO’s Rule of Law Index.
Chris Purnell, executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, said these misunderstandings are often what keep potential clients from coming to the clinic for help. Unless a problem is patently legal — such as a custody battle or child support dispute — people are likely to believe their problem is the natural result of their past misdeeds, he said.
Even if people understand they are facing a legal problem, they still may not know where to turn for help, or may believe they can handle their problems on their own, said Jon Laramore, executive director of Indiana Legal Services, Inc. But often, if a person seeks legal counsel, they find their quality of life and peace of mind improved, he said.
“We do hear from people who say, ‘You got this worry off my mind,’” Laramore said.
Getting the word out
The path to helping citizens achieve peace of mind often begins with efforts to educate the public, particularly low-income communities, on how the law can improve their situations, the legal aid providers said. A good place to start is with educational campaigns targeted to younger citizens, Purnell said.
If legal services corporations teach younger generations about the work they do and the issues they address, then those generations will know where to turn for help when they encounter legal issues as adults, Purnell said. Further, establishing positive relationships with young people, especially those from disadvantaged communities, can help to end the stigma and fear that can accompany seeking legal advice, he said. Fear is another common barrier that stops citizens from hiring an attorney, with 12 percent of respondents to the LSC survey indicating they were afraid of pursuing legal action.
“We have this air of authority,” Purnell said. “…We want to normalize ourselves and engage in relationship to show them, ‘This is what the law can do for you, and you can trust us. We want what’s best for you.’”
Laramore also noted that people who don’t seek legal advice may think an attorney couldn’t make any difference in the problems they’re facing. But even problems that, on their face, may not seem legal to the average lay person — such as a loss of disability benefits or a landlord-tenant dispute — often have legal dimensions, he said.
“I think this large category of ‘no need for advice,’ I think that’s people who don’t understand that it’s a legal issue,” Laramore said. “That is something that the legal profession can work on, is making sure that people understand … what kinds of help that lawyers can provide.”
The task of educating the public about available legal services is enormous, which is why the Indiana Supreme Court launched the Coalition for Court Access in 2016 to provide state-level guidance on access to justice issues. Chaired by Justice Steven David, the Coalition for Court Access has working groups addressing all facets of access to justice issues, from financial barriers to resource development to problems facing pro se litigants and more.
The Indiana legal community has an infrastructure of legal aid organizations, attorneys and trial court judges who are looking for ways to break down legal barriers, David said. However, their already-heavy workloads may inhibit their ability to serve underrepresented communities through pro bono or other similar work, he said. To that end, legal professionals who want to increase access to justice may need assistance identifying the best practices that will allow them to serve more Hoosiers.
“That’s the core function of the coalition is to help with that,” the justice said.
The coalition has also begun its own study of unmet civil legal needs in Indiana as part of a collaboration with the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Public Policy Institute. Maurer professor and access to justice scholar Victor Quintanilla is working on the study, which involves interviewing social service providers, legal professionals and Indiana residents to get a better sense of where the greatest legal needs in the Hoosier state lie.
“This will help us answer questions in light of the overwhelming number of legal problems, with so few who end up reaching out,” Quintanilla said. “And we want to find out what happens when they do reach out — are they able to get the relief they need?”
Preparing for the future
Answering those questions is becoming increasingly important considering the ongoing opioid crisis, which is compounding the need for civil legal help, Quintanilla said. David agreed, noting the drug epidemic is causing greater need for representation in children in need of services, termination of parental rights and other similar civil issues.
Through the coalition’s ongoing work and published studies such as the WJP report, access to justice experts say their goal is to begin conversations about how civil legal barriers can be broken down as the need continues to grow. That need isn’t going away, so it’s critical that legal communities in Indiana and around the country find ways to meet the needs of the largest number of people in their communities, they said.
“This is being seen as more of a holistic part of improving social and economic development,” Long said.•