The law does not enforce itself. Americans entitled to health care or Social Security benefits depend on hearings and lawsuits to ensure that wrongfully denied benefits are paid. Tenants who are abused by their landlords rely on courts to keep those landlords in line. Corporations have no incentive to comply with laws protecting consumers unless they can be sued into compliance (which is exactly why they fight so hard to immunize themself from lawsuits. )
Moreover, as the Supreme Court recognized more than 75 years ago, “[e]ven the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law,” so such laymen cannot stand up for their own rights without a lawyer in their corner. According to a report by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), however, “less than 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income Americans” are currently being met. A void which effectively creates a law-free zone around millions of Americans.
As the report explains, the United States invests far less in legal services for the poor than other Western industrialized nations. At the low end, Germany and Finland spent three times as much of their gross domestic product as we do on civil legal services for the poor. At the high end, England outspends the United States twelve times.
Federal lawmakers deserve much of the blame for this state of affairs. When President Reagan was elected in 1980, legal services achieved the modest goal of providing two attorneys for every 10,000 poor people in a given area. Since then, the budget for legal services was slashed twice — first by President Reagan in 1982 and again by the right-wing Congress in 1996 — and the federal government now spends, in inflation adjusted dollars, less than half what it spent on legal services for the poor in 1980. To his credit, President Obama proposed a $45 million — or 15% — increase to federal funding for legal services in 2010, but this is merely a fraction of what is necessary to close the gap.
States and other sources provide significant funding for legal services as well, but one of the most important sources of funding for low-income legal services could be in jeopardy from the Roberts Court.
Presently, state-run programs known as “IOLTA” provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year to legal services programs nationwide. In the 1990s, however, a right-wing legal organization known as the Washington Legal Foundation brought the audacious claim that this funding mechnism violates the Constitution. Although the Supreme Court eventually upheld the IOLTA programs, the decision was 5–4, with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor casting the key fifth vote. Ever since O’Connor was replaced by right-wing Justice Samuel Alito, the Roberts Court has made it its mission to seek out and destroy progressive 5–4 decisions where she was in the majority — so the IOLTA case could shortly be in their crosshairs.
Even with the IOLTA funds, however, the CLASP report makes clear that the poor have woefully inadequate access to counsel; and without such access many will be denied the rights and benefits the law entitles them to. If Congress truly intends the laws it enacted to protect the poor to mean something, it will address this problem post haste.