Laura Klein Abel
Exciting Developments in Access to Justice for Low-Income People
by Laura K. Abel & David Pedulla
It is common knowledge that our courts don’t well serve people of modest means. Whether the concern is lost wages, unfair evictions, bureaucratic denials of health coverage, divorce or domestic violence, most individuals have a difficult time trying to enforce their civil legal rights. But, against this grim backdrop, some areas are getting increased attention.
Advocacy organizations recently joined together to urge the Federal Communications Commission to reduce the amount that lawyers and others who receive collect calls from prisoners and immigration detainees have to pay to receive those calls. For prisoners who are unable to contact their lawyers and social service providers, and for families who are unable to talk to their loved ones behind bars, this is a vitally important issue. The advocates explained that the high cost of collect calls from prison interferes with attorney-client communication. Some public defenders and civil legal aid attorneys are simply unable to accept client calls. The advocates also explained that by making it hard and sometimes impossible for prisoners to maintain contact with family members and social service providers, the high cost of calls from prison interferes with the ability of prisoners to successfully re-enter society after they have served their sentence. Among the groups filing comments with the FCC were the Coalition for the Right to Communicate (a coalition, represented by the Brennan Center, of prisoners’ families, attorneys, and social services agencies), the Sentencing Project, the American Bar Association, and many other interested entities. (To read all comments, click here and search for proceeding #96-128).
In the halls of Congress, Senator and former legal aid attorney Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a loan repayment bill to help civil legal aid attorneys pay off their exorbitant student loans. Known as the Civil Legal Assistance Attorney Loan Repayment Act (S. 1167), the bill aims to provide an incentive for qualified attorneys to serve as lawyers at civil legal aid organizations. Many lawyers graduate from law school with overwhelming debt, which makes it difficult for them to take jobs at civil legal aid organizations that offer salaries beneath those available in private firms and other job settings. But, qualified legal aid attorneys are necessary to ensuring that low-income people are able to enforce their rights. The bill authorizes a Congressional appropriation of $10 million in FY 2008 to provide up to $6,000 in loan repayment assistance each year to lawyers who are employed full-time at civil legal services organizations. Legal aid attorneys would apply to participate in the program, and recipients of the financial assistance would be selected on a first-come, first-served basis.
At the international level, the United Nations Development Programme is sponsoring the Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, which will examine the relationship between poverty, exclusion, and the law. The Commission, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto, a leading Peruvian economist, will focus on the ways in which poverty pushes people to live outside of the rule of law and the role that governments and foundations can play in promoting legal reforms to reduce poverty. One of the Commission’s working groups will specifically focus on Access to Justice and the Rule of Law. This working group will look at expanding access for poor people to legal services, putting an end to people feeling excluded from the legal system in their country, and promoting knowledge of the legal system.