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Rights Advocates See 'Access To Justice' Gap In U.S.

Too many poor people in the U.S. lack access to lawyers when they confront major life challenges, including eviction, deportation, custody battles and domestic violence, according to a new report by advocates at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic.

Risa Kaufman, acting co-director of the clinic, is one of dozens of lawyers traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, this week to talk with a U.N. Human Rights Committee examining how the U.S. complies with an international covenant on civil and political rights. Kaufman tells NPR that the "access to justice gap" disproportionately affects women, minorities and immigrant communities.

"In the United States, millions of people are forced to go it alone when they're facing a crisis," Kaufman says. "It's a human rights crisis, and the United States is really losing ground with the rest of the world."

Research demonstrates people with legal representation do better in housing, immigration and domestic violence cases, Kaufman says. But there's no right to counsel in civil disputes in the U.S., unlike the promise of a lawyer for people facing significant jail or prison time in criminal cases. Kaufman says states and cities are working to develop some innovations--including a pilot program in New York to give lawyers to immigrants facing deportation.

"We're really recommending the U.S. government step up...that it support state level efforts to establish a right to counsel in certain civil cases, that the U.S. ease restrictions and increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation," the main way federal legal aid is delivered for poor Americans, she adds.

The Justice Department has created an Access to Justice Initiative, what Kaufman describes as a "promising start" to help coordinate research, funding and file supportive legal briefs in cases around the country.

The U.N. meeting comes only days after advocates launched a Justice Index to help rank states on their support for people with limited English proficiency, for people with disabilities, and for people proceeding without lawyers in civil cases.

The findings by the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School include:

  • Some states have fewer than 1 civil legal aid lawyer per 10,000 residents who rank as poor under federal standards.
  • Nearly one quarter of states have no rules to allow court clerks to help people without legal help.
  • Nearly half of state judicial web sites have no information in languages other than English.
  • David Udell, executive director of the national center, says the index is a way to provide data and spark conversation "on how best to deliver on one of the core promises we all make to each other as Americans: that everyone must be equal before the law."

    Supporters of legal access for the poor say that data could help identify states where the most change is needed, and to direct energy and funding their way.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.