The New Hampshire Access to Justice Commission released its 2021 report on the civil law needs of Granite Staters, and its findings reaffirm what is already known – poverty itself creates problems that require legal assistance.
“People on low incomes, older adults and people with disabilities often have multiple legal problems at the same time,” the report said.
The New Hampshire Access to Justice Commission was set up by the NH Supreme Court with the aim of making changes to improve citizens’ access to justice. One of the Commission’s tasks is to identify and assess present and future needs for access to justice in civil matters.
The report, released Jan. 28, was the result of a year-long collaboration between the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center, New Hampshire Legal and Referral Center, Pro Bono, and numerous volunteers.
Debt collection for people with disabilities was one of the areas identified in the report as an area of increased need alongside housing and domestic relationships.
At a virtual press conference on January 28, New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice James P. Bassett thanked U.S. District Court Judge Joseph N. LaPlante and attorney Mark Rouvalis for guiding the commission’s report and the Executive Director from New Hampshire Legal Assistance. Sarah Matson Dustin, “to energetically take the initiative and guide us through this process.”
“This initiative and report reaffirms the vital role the Access to Justice Commission plays in achieving equal justice for all in New Hampshire,” said Basset.
The needs assessment research team received contributions from nearly 1,000 people, including 540 people who are eligible for services from the four New Hampshire civil assistance programs. Research methods included a telephone survey from the Political Research Center at Suffolk University, focus groups from the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, and online surveys.
Mattson Dustin said the report, in some ways, confirmed what the legal aid community staff were already aware of.
“Areas that civil legal assistance programs are already focusing on – such as housing and family law – remain acute needs for the communities we serve,” she said, adding that the problem is finding enough legal aid to meet the need from New Hampshire to cover, problem persists in moving forward.
“There is just not enough legal aid to get around. We need to look at new strategies like clinics that can leverage the efforts of volunteer lawyers and law students, and new tools like online programming that we learned quickly during the pandemic. ”
According to the report, 20 percent of phone survey respondents who had a household member with a disability had problems with debt collection, compared to 9 percent of those who did not have a household member with a disability.
“We found that debt collection affects people with disabilities more often than people without disabilities,” said Mattson Dustin. “The civil legal assistance programs do not currently deal with large volumes of consumer debt cases and the report tells us that we need to consider expanding our work in this area. We also need to look at how we are coordinating public relations across the legal aid network, including the NHLA, LARC, Pro Bono and DRC. We all share the goal of making the legal aid system more understandable and accessible, and the results of the report support making this goal a high priority. “
The study shows that while economic insecurity, health and aging are not civil law problems in themselves, they are linked to various civil law problems. According to the report, respondents identified health / aging issues as the most damaging in their lives, ranking second after the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the people named in the report who could seek legal assistance was Diane.
According to the report, 73-year-old Diane said she took pride in paying her bills on time and that losing her caring job during the Great Recession didn’t change that. Looking for new work, Diane used her retirement plan to pay for rent, utilities, and groceries, then turned on her credit card when the retirement benefits were gone. When she couldn’t find another job as a nurse, Diane took a part-time minimum wage job as part of the Senior Community Service Employment Program, but eventually her credit card debt forced her to turn to legal aid for help.
“I had no money or family to help me,” said Diane. “I sank deeper and deeper and couldn’t see my way out. The frustrating part was that I dutifully looked for work and bumped into a wall. “
Pro Bono matched Diane with a volunteer attorney who recommended that she file for bankruptcy. Diane initially resisted but is glad she took the advice.
“I was embarrassed,” said Diane. “But my lawyer told me not to be ashamed or ashamed of myself and helped me understand that bankruptcy was there for people like me who are in a pickle and need a fresh start. It is a great relief not to have this debt anymore. “
One of the study’s conclusions, which Mattson Dustin said “came through loud and clear,” is the lack of inexpensive, free legal aid in New Hampshire and across the country.
“LARC and Pro Bono plan to merge this year, and the merged program will work even more closely with the NHLA and DRC,” she said. “All legal aid programs need more resources to meet demand for our services, but together we can increase our collective impact.”
These articles are shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. More information is available at kollaborativeh.org.