By CHERI BEASLEY
Every day in courtrooms across North Carolina, from Murphy to Manteo, pro se litigants struggle to navigate the judicial system alone. Many more indigent litigants never reach the courthouse doors as they cannot overcome procedural hurdles without the assistance of a lawyer.
Our country’s most vulnerable citizens and veterans are in crisis when facing domestic violence, divorce, child custody, housing, consumer protection, employment and health benefits needs. For some families, the difference between shelter and homelessness is often legal aid representation. While we as lawyers hold up the ideal of equal access to justice under the law, without the support of a lawyer, many North Carolinians of low-income and modest means lack meaningful access to justice.
During National Pro Bono Week, Oct. 25-31, we celebrate the tremendous efforts of lawyers across the country who provide legal assistance to individuals and communities in need, identifying and addressing their legal needs. This week, legal aid providers, bar associations, law schools, and others are calling upon the broader legal community to make a commitment to pro bono work to ensure equal access to justice for all. To achieve this goal, legal aid organizations are presenting awards to attorney volunteers, law firms are hosting trainings to recruit new volunteers for pro bono projects, and bar associations are raising awareness of the need for pro bono work and raising money to support legal aid.
Nationwide, legal services organizations, as best they try, meet only 50 percent of legal needs of those below the poverty line. In North Carolina, a whopping 80 percent of civil legal aid needs of the poor are unmet. In North Carolina, there is one legal aid attorney for every 13,170 low-income individuals. Alternatively, there is one private attorney for every 562 North Carolina residents.
Based on household income, 2.2 million North Carolinians are eligible for legal aid. Legal aid offices are located in only 18 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. In some rural areas in the state, clients must travel a great distance to reach a legal aid office. Because of high caseloads, legal aid often does not have the resources to serve those seeking legal advice. While legal aid works diligently to serve clients, they simply cannot serve all those in need without greater resources and support of the entire legal profession.
The consequences of ill-handled legal matters can be detrimental whether one is of means or not. Poverty often compounds legal issues. Further, access to justice is good for North Carolina. When legal needs are met, cost burdens are eased on government systems. An investment in civil legal services results in direct and indirect economic benefits and cost savings of $48,775,276.
Private attorneys are an important part of the solution to access to justice. The contributions of the private bar to promoting access to justice for all North Carolinians are commendable. Last year, lawyers across the state donated 18,000 hours of pro bono services to Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and Pisgah Legal Services, at a value of more than $3.2 million. Pro bono lawyers counseled clients, represented them in court, negotiated settlements on their behalf, educated individuals about their rights, saved homes, assisted domestic violence victims, accessed health care, and preserved essential benefits for families in need.
Every day lawyers are making a difference. This year, the Charlotte legal community has united to provide pro bono representation to unaccompanied immigrant children in partnership with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. The North Carolina Bar Association continues its collaboration with Legal Aid of North Carolina to offer “Lawyer on the Line,” a program that connects private attorneys with low-income clients by phone to provide brief advice and service. The North Carolina Bar Association also offers its annual 4ALL Statewide Service Day and NCLEAP which provides legal services to low-wealth entrepreneurs. The Greensboro Bar Association launched a new initiative to obtain expunctions and certificates of relief for low-income individuals whose criminal records present a barrier to gainful employment.
Thank you for your commitment to providing pro bono legal services, your desire to serve our communities, and your willingness to use your unique training as lawyers to address the needs of our neighbors. Indeed, despite the service of many, the need for legal aid persists. As lawyers and judges, we have committed to uphold the rule of law which requires the judicial system to be accessible. To continue to improve upon the judicial system’s accessibility, we all must offer our time and service to address the unmet legal needs of individuals of low-income and modest means.
Cheri Beasley is an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. She is a graduate of Rutgers University Douglass College and the University of Tennessee College of Law.
Portions of this article are reprinted from Cheri Beasley, “Magna Carta: Access to Justice,” Attorney at Law Magazine, August 2015, at 10.