Sunday, October 20, 2019
Justice Gap in California and Elsewhere
The State Bar of California has conducted the first comprehensive statewide study on the need for civil legal assistance in California. The findings are disturbing:
- 55 percent of Californians at all income levels experienced at least one civil legal issue in their household within the past year, yet nearly 70 percent of them received no legal assistance.
- On average, low-income Californians had more than four civil legal problems per household, while those with higher incomes, on average, had slightly more than two.
- Californians sought legal assistance for fewer than one in three legal problems.
- Most Californians do not receive legal help: 27 percent of low-income Californians received some legal help, while 34 percent of higher-income Californians did.
- Nearly 40 percent of low-income Californians who sought legal help reached out to legal aid organizations, but the current system cannot help everyone who needs it. The State Bar projects that Californians will seek legal aid for approximately 450,000 civil legal problems this year; just over half will receive some help, and only 30 percent will be fully served by legal aid.
- The most common categories for civil legal problems affecting Californians at all income levels are health, finance, and employment.
- Californians gave multiple reasons why they did not seek legal help. The most commonly cited reasons included:
- uncertainty about whether their problem was a legal issue;
- belief that they needed to deal with the problem on their own; o fear of pursuing legal action; and
- concerns about costs.
More information on preliminary findings from the survey can be found in the California Justice Gap Study Technical Report. See also this report.
In my podcast interview with law professor Benjamin Barton on Rebooting Justice, we discuss various ways in which the serious need for legal services can be improved. This is of course a conundrum as legal practitioners very reasonably expect to be repaid for the costs (and agony) of going to law school. On the other hand, many new practitioners cannot find work and could maybe build their resumes and gain valuable experience if working at lower rates and in untraditional attorney/client relationships.
The existing problem is a clear market failure. It is astonishing that in a country with one of the highest number of attorneys per capita in the world, the general public cannot and/or do not obtain the legal assistance they need. Perhaps the time has truly come for institutions of higher learning to focus on training more affordable legal service providers and fewer actual lawyers. Many new law graduates have difficulty finding work anyway. From a consumer point of view, it is also troublesome that some people – the ones at the bottom of their class – can officially get a J.D. and, with much hard work and arguably some luck, pass the bar and thus call themselves attorneys at law albeit with sometimes very substandard qualifications. I am sorry to say this, but as a law professor, I know this to be true. Would it not be better to create some middle ground for people who are great people eager to work in the legal field, but for whom a somewhat “lesser” degree than a J.D. might be more appropriate? I think so. Initiatives such as those by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are underway to support community college and other students. Diversity is a benefit! This goes for the educational sector as well.