Civil Justice For All

May 24, 2016

In the 1963 landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone accused of a crime deserves the right to counsel – yet still no such right exists for civil cases. A civil case is any legal matter outside the realm of military, political or criminal law and encompasses everything from small claims, child custody, immigration, debt collection, and landlord/tenant issues – to name a few.

A lawyer is often the lynchpin for low-income New Yorkers trying to navigate a deeply complex system while staving off the next crisis and ensuring access to basic needs like food, shelter and healthcare. However, each year 1.8 million of our neighbors go to civil court unrepresented. Even more distressing is that for every two people who try to access pro-bono legal services, at least one is turned away. If we take Legal Aid NYC, one of the largest providers of pro-bono legal services in NYC as an example, their civil practice turns away 89% of people seeking help due to such intense demand. The court system was not designed for the unrepresented litigant, and certainly not one who must also simultaneously deal with critical time and financial stressors that typify the experience of many New Yorkers.

While many cannot afford legal help, often the difficulties start before they even step foot in a courtroom. Legal notices are written in impenetrable legalese or an unfamiliar language. Cases may actually be ripe for self-representation or easily resolved outside of court, but finding appropriate resources proves too confusing or difficult.

And the impact of a negative judgment in civil court for low-income families can prove disastrous. Whether through wage garnishment, frozen bank accounts, tainted credit reports, having to continue to live in unsafe or unhealthy home, loss of parental rights, loss of immigration status, loss of benefits – the list goes on and on. This vicious cycle prevents New Yorkers from climbing the economic ladder.

A fair judgment should not depend on your income and people should not be denied the justice to which they are entitled simply because they don’t have the financial means to pay for costly legal advice. We think technology has a part to play.

This year our fellows will start the summer by asking how might we:

  • Untangle the legal process for New Yorkers being sued by debt collectors
  • Bridge language and translation barriers within the court system
  • Build better platforms to increase the supply and quality of pro-bono legal services
  • Harness technology to better diagnose and triage legal cases

Stay tuned for updates on their progress!

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