One More Way the Courts Aren’t Working for the Poor

There’s no right to indigent defense in civil cases—which means people living in poverty lose out.
News Story (NATIONAL)

Michelle Chen
Nation, The
May 16, 2016

Tags: Justice for All

Organizations mentioned/involved: National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) at Fordham Law School


The 2016 Justice Index, a project of the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ), scores state courts on how they provide litigants with access to basic legal instruments, analyzing where and how the system is rigged against the vulnerable.

One measure is the proportion of legal-aid attorneys relative to the poor population. Currently, there are fewer than 7,000 legal-aid lawyers nationwide, roughly .64 attorneys for every 10,000 people in poverty. Depending on where you go to court, your access to counsel varies wildly: South Carolina has a ratio of just .24 legal-aid lawyers for every 10,000 poor people, but Washington State has 1.09 per 10,000.

But across the country the availability of legal-aid attorneys is dwarfed by the ratio of 40 regular attorneys for every 10,000 people. In this deeply skewed legal landscape, while businesses go “forum shopping” to seek corporate-friendly judges, the poor by contrast see their legal fates dictated by class and geography. Meanwhile, civil legal-aid groups like Rural Legal Services must wrestle with budget cuts.