Justice isnt for all, but it should be
The story has not changed. Two years after a study commissioned by the Oregon State Bar declared that needy residents were unable to obtain a lawyer 72 percent of the time, things are much the same.
Let's put that another way: Oregon currently is meeting less than 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income Oregonians. Every day, the line of poor people waiting to get legal guidance through the expensive pathways to our court system grows.
Specifically, equal-justice advocates say, two of three people who seek legal help are turned away. That applies to frustrated citizens cheated by used-car salesmen, battered women caught in the quagmire of domestic violence, tenants seeking to settle scores with slum-landlords and seniors struggling to receive the benefits available to them.
Unfortunately, to these groups of the vulnerable and venerable, justice is still as elusive as gold. This should not be the case.
Currently, there are 20 Legal Aid Services offices statewide, with an annual budget of about $10 million. Last year these offices served about 20,760 clients whose incomes fall below the poverty level Ñ $21,313 for a family of four.
Sadly, funding for legal services has not kept pace with the increasing number of low-income people who need legal aid.
For Multnomah County alone, this year's projected shortfall will amount to more than $400,000 worth of services, according to state bar numbers. Legal aid service providers say unmet legal need is estimated to be about 250,000 cases per year.
'We are not near serving the percentage of people who need legal aid services in the state,' said Linda D. Clingan. She heads the Portland-based nonprofit organization Campaign for Equal Justice.
The group has launched an Access to Justice Endowment Fund to generate a long-term funding stream statewide. It needs consistent help from those who cherish the idea of access to justice for all.
I am also encouraged by a concerted, bipartisan effort during the last legislative session to seek extra funding sources from the state's general fund.
Experts say the gap between services provided and what's needed overall for low-income Oregonians could be closed significantly. The bad news is that it would take $10 million annually to achieve the goal.
I say it would not be a bad investment to expand our sense of civility to afford the poor a 'bargained' access to justice.
The time has come for all of us to develop realistic views about access to the justice system and what we expect from it. Only then will the final line from the Pledge of Allegiance Ñ 'with liberty and justice for all' Ñ ring true.
Right now, the legal system simply is not doing its primary job of providing reasonably certain justice for all. That is my objection.