Obtaining legal representation for the economically disenfranchised has always been a problem in the United States. While criminal defendants can obtain free legal representation, its much more difficult for the poor to obtain legal representation in civil matters.
The US Justice Department created the Office the Access of Justice in March of 2010 to increase access to attorneys for poor people who were unable to afford lawyers, including lawyers in civil cases. The Trump Administration recently contributed to the lack of legal representation by closing the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice.
According to a 2015 study by the National Center for State Courts, only one in four civil defendants retains a lawyer. In 1992 nearly everyone had access to counsel. Why the gradual change? Money. (NCSC was founded by an independent nonprofit court improvement organization founded with the help of former Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger.)
With a many cases involving debt collection, landlord-tenant disputes and home foreclosures, lawyers build strategies around their opponent’s inexperience, knowing full well that the case against those without counsel will likely end up in their favor.
Under procedural rules, courts often have little patience for litigants who go pro se, a Latin term meaning “for him.” Some courts offer volunteers who can explain procedures without offering legal advice. Nevertheless, judges are required to hold those without the aid of legal counsel to the same standards as licensed lawyers.
“It has been my experience, despite what many have seen on television through programs such as Judge Judy, Judge Brown, or Caught in Providence, that self-representation, unless one has a license, is often a fruitless effort,” explains personal injury lawyer Jeffrey J. Downey. Corporations always have lawyers available to defend cases aggressively, using procedural obstacles that may be unfamiliar to most consumers.
There are efforts underway to change the rates of self-representation in our judicial system. Civil Gideon, an organization named after the 1963 Supreme Court case establishing free legal counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases, is attempting to expand the right to certain civil disputes. This is an effort that has been backed by the American Bar Association since 2006 but questions remain as to how state would fund it nevertheless run it.
Until such time that self-representation in the courtroom is viewed as equal on both sides, it is better to err on the side of caution and seek a lawyer to represent you. This a two-tiered system of justice, and unfortunately, it is not likely to change anytime soon.
In the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, there are numerous avenues to pursue free legal aid. In most cases, the type of aid you can receive mainly deals with your rights to counsel, what paperwork you may require, and what time and effort you may have to pursue in order to receive justice.
In Maryland, check out the following link
If you or a loved one have suffered personal injury in Virginia, contact the Law Office of Jeffrey J. Downey for a free consultation. We practice in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Our office is conveniently located near Tyson’s Corner.
Address: 8270 Greensboro Drive, Suite 810, McLean, VA, 22101
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