This is why poll taxes are considered one of the darkest spots in American history – and that’s why there has been so much outrage in recent months over state laws requiring citizens to purchase expensive ID cards for up to $ 250 in some cases But here’s the truth: There are already so many rights that Americans living in poverty cannot access just because they cannot afford a lawyer. These include housing rights, veteran benefits, disability access, and many other areas of our civil justice system. This is called the access gap to justice and is one of the most pressing – and least discussed – civil rights issues of our time. If you’ve ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order, you’ve heard the phrase, “If you can’t afford a lawyer, someone will be appointed for you.” What you may not know, however, is that this protection only applies to criminal matters, not civil matters, even though both have the power to make life – and livelihood – forever.
For example, if you are wrongly evicted from your home and you have to appeal; or if you suffer a medical emergency and need to file for bankruptcy; if you are in an abusive relationship and need an injunction; If you are wrongly sued by a collection company and have to fight back, the only way to do so is if you can afford to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in legal fees. And four in five low-income Americans can’t.
It is estimated that only one in ten tenants fighting an eviction will go to court with a lawyer by their side, although if you have one, the chance you will get a positive verdict is twice as high. And even fewer Americans have legal counsel when they are sued by debt collectors.
It’s madness: our country has designed its poverty law in such a way that you only have access to your rights for a fee. This is not only against decency but also against common sense because when faced with a bankruptcy, eviction or debt collection, you probably won’t be able to afford a lawyer by definition.
This injustice is barely noticed in the national civil rights debate – but it prevents millions of Americans who are disproportionately black and brown from enjoying their basic protection. When you start to get angry, remember this: There is a long legacy of expanding access to the legal system in America. Those Miranda Rights that you hear suspects read out loud on detective programs? They were not included in our constitution in 1787. They were educated about their privacy and legal rights through cases such as Gideon v Wainwright in 1963, which guaranteed a right to legal counsel in criminal matters, and Miranda v Arizona in 1966, which required individuals suspected of a crime to have their rights of silence and legal counsel.
Now is our turn to build on these advances – and with much of the aid that has helped Americans weather the ongoing pandemic, there is no time to wait.
We can start allocating more money to legal counsel who can offer free legal advice to low-income families. For decades, Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a non-partisan, non-profit organization founded by Congress, has done this vital work as the largest source of funding for civil legal assistance to low-income families. But Congress has never given the LSC the resources it needs to help our most marginalized communities. This includes evicted Americans, victims of domestic violence, and abused by illegal debt collectors. For this reason, Joe, as co-founder and chairman of the Access to Legal Aid Caucus of the House of Representatives, increased the financing amount of the LSC by 90 million US dollars and at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis pleaded for an additional 2.5 billion US dollars, especially to support tenants, who are threatened with eviction. It is for this reason that we believe that as part of President Joe Biden’s commitment to “increase access to legal representation,” we believe that the President should aggressively urge Congress to better support the LSC.
In addition to increasing legal aid funding, we can change the system so more people can get the lawyers they need – and even stand up for themselves.
That means exploring nonprofit professional training to guide low-income families through the system as they deal with legal challenges that don’t require a special degree – just as nurses step in when doctors aren’t required . And it means simplifying the forms, processes, and legal procedures that make up our legal system so that more Americans can access their rights when possible.
That’s what Upsolve, a nonprofit that Rohan launched in 2016 to enable families to file for bankruptcy for free and settle their debts on their own, enabled over 7,000 Americans. These are people like Danielle Venus, who had no way of getting under $ 55,000 in emergency medical bills in a near-fatal car accident, and who even had three jobs. With an optimized web app, she was able to access her bankruptcy protection and return to her life free of debt.
But we also know that it is the exception, not the rule. Across America, millions of people living in poverty are unable to avoid unimaginable suffering – loss of a home, violent marriage, an empty refrigerator – because the legal system is designed to keep them out.
That is why we need a new civil right in this country: the right to access your rights, regardless of how much money you have in your bank account. Because America’s promise is that we are all equal under the law. And so it should be, whether or not you can afford a lawyer.
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