Sunday, March 17, 2013

There's no glut of lawyers; instead it's a "miserable fit" between the economics of practice and the unmet needs of the poor

That's the key point that comes out of this article from the New York Times called Right to Lawyer Often Can Be Empty Promise for Poor though it's hardly news to anyone with only a passing interest in the current law school "crisis."  Law school tuition, driven primarily by the cost of faculty salaries and the need, real or perceived, to build shiny new facilities, means that many law students graduate with loan payments that preclude them from representing people in financial need.  Though tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the article points out that the tacit promise of the decision that no one should want for legal representation remains unfulfilled in cases, both civil and some criminal, where the stakes couldn't be higher for poor and middle class litigants.

Billy Jerome Presley spent 17 months in a Georgia jail because he did not have $2,700 for a child support payment. He had no prior jail record but also no lawyer. In Baltimore last fall, Carl Hymes, 21, was arrested on charges of shining a laser into the eyes of a police officer. Bail was set at $75,000. He had no arrest record but also no lawyer. In West Orange, N.J., last summer, Walter Bloss, 89, was served with an eviction notice from the rent-controlled apartment he had lived in for 43 years after a dispute with his landlord. He had gone to court without a lawyer.

Fifty years ago, on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that those accused of a crime have a constitutional right to a lawyer whether or not they can afford one. But as legal officials observe the anniversary of what is widely considered one of the most significant judicial declarations of equality under law, many say that the promise inherent in the Gideon ruling remains unfulfilled because so many legal needs still go unmet.

. . . .

With law school graduates hurting for work, it may appear that there is a glut of lawyers. But many experts say that is a misunderstanding.

“We don’t have an excess of lawyers,” said Martin Guggenheim, a law professor at New York University. “What we have is a miserable fit. In many areas like family and housing law, there is simply no private bar to go to. You couldn’t find a lawyer to help you even if you had the money because there isn’t a dime to be made in those cases.”

Even in situations where an individual is up against a state prosecutor and jail may result, not every jurisdiction provides lawyers to the defendants. In Georgia, those charged with failing to pay child support face a prosecutor and jail but are not supplied with a lawyer.

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