October 23, 2013 Articles

Justice for the Poor: More Than Duty, It's Opportunity!

Legal aid is an area where all faiths and those of no faith can come together to strengthen communities.

By Bruce D. Strom

Harvard University commissioned Reginald Heber Smith in 1919 to compile a study on the legal needs of the poor, entitled Justice and the Poor. The inherent problem he identified remains today’s challenge: “The lawyer is indispensable to the conduct of the proceedings before the courts, and yet the fees which he must charge for his services are more than millions of persons can pay.” Reginald Heber Smith, Justice and the Poor 31 (New York, Merrymount Press 1919).

Smith recognized the duty owed by attorneys to make justice accessible, citing the professional ethics of 1884: “It is indeed the noblest faculty of the profession to counsel the ignorant, defend the weak and oppressed, and to stand forth on all occasions as the bulwark of private rights against the assaults of power.” J. George Sharwood, An Essay on Professional Ethics 53 (F. B. Rotham, 5th ed. 1993) (1854).

Smith, however, discovered something far nobler than duty. As he sat in legal-aid offices, Smith was amazed at the compassion and service offered by staff and volunteer attorneys. He witnessed the change that came over people from learning their rights and having an advocate support them. He believed the human story needed to be told to demonstrate the opportunity legal aid provided in strengthening individuals and whole communities through significant economic and social impact. Almost 100 years later, that story has not been fully told—until now.

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