August 25, 2017 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

By George (Buck) T. Lewis, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

In June, the Legal Services Corporation issued its report entitled "The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans." It is an outstanding piece of work and I would recommend it to everyone. It may be found here.

The report concludes that 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help. In the past year, 71% of low income households experienced at least one civil legal problem. These problems included domestic violence, veterans benefits, disability access, housing conditions, and health care.

Low income Americans seek support from LSC-funded legal aid organizations with regard to 1.7 million problems. Because of the profound lack of resources, LSC-funded legal aid organizations have to refuse to help more than half of these problems.

The report goes on to say that more than 60,000,000 Americans have family incomes at or below 125% of federal poverty levels. These include 6.4 million seniors, 11.1 million persons with disabilities, 1.7 million veterans, and about 10,000,000 rural residents.

Who are these Americans with all these problems? They are our brothers and sisters! They work in the hotels where we convene. They paint our houses and clean our gutters. They work part time without health insurance at our local neighborhood department store. They serve as custodians in the churches in which we worship. And, some of them raise the children of our military personnel while our military personnel are on duty in dangerous places around the world. Seven in ten of our brothers and sisters say their legal problems have significantly affected their lives. Because of the domino effect of legal and health problems, one in four low income households has experienced more than six new civil legal problems in the past year.

It is sad to say it, but low income Americans seek out professional help for only 20% of the civil legal problems they face. Often that's because they don't know where to look for help or don't know what resources might exist. Other surveys tell us that they are demoralized, having had so many unsuccessful encounters with societal institutions. But even when they do seek help, the LSC report estimates that low income Americans will receive limited help or no legal help for 1.1 million eligible problems after they have sought help from LSC-funded legal organizations.

For me, this is a moral issue, plain and simple. As many of you may know, the one subject most often discussed in the Bible is helping the poor. Whether you follow an Old Testament faith tradition or an Old and New Testament faith tradition, there are plenty of citations to go around.

Exodus 23:6, "You shall not deny justice to the poor in their lawsuits." Deuteronomy 16:20, "Follow justice and justice alone."
Psalms 106:3, "Blessed are they that maintain justice, who constantly do what is right."
Psalms 140:12, "I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.
Zachariah 7:9, "Administer true justice."
Proverbs 29:7, "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern."
Jeremiah 22:16, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?"
The Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue.“
The Quoran: "Behold, God enjoys justice and good actions and generosity to our fellows." "Never let hatred lead us into deviating from justice." And: "Be just. That is closest to God-conscious."

Rabbi Bradley Artson, of American Jewish University, said, "It is a matter of Jewish integrity and a rebuttal of those who would tailor Judaism to fit a Christian mold that ethics and a passion for justice remain the engines driving the entire Jewish enterprises. Rituals are essential and beautiful, but they remain frosting. Goodness, justice and decency form the base."

Maybe we need to rename this LSC report because calling this The Justice "Gap" doesn't adequately capture the magnitude of the problem. Maybe we should call it The Justice "Canyon" and face up to the fact that we have clearly broken faith with the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance's promise of "Liberty and Justice for All." There is no escaping the inconvenient truth that there is no "Justice for All." Not even close. It is an outrage and it is time for us to stand up and say so and demand that we do much better.

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."-Dr. Martin Luther King.