Editor’s Note: Joe Kennedy is a former congressman from Massachusetts. He is also a former legal aid volunteer and the co-founder of the Congressional Access to Legal Services Caucus. Rohan Pavuluri (@RPavuluri) is the CEO of Upsolve, a nonprofit that empowers low-income and working-class families to access their civil legal rights and achieve economic mobility. He's also a Board Director of the National Center for Access to Justice, a member of the Emerging Leaders Council of the Legal Services Corporation and a member of the Making Justice Accessible initiative of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
Your rights shouldn’t come at a price.
That’s why poll taxes are seen as one of the darkest stains on America’s history — and it’s why, in recent months, there has been so much outrage at laws in states requiring citizens to purchase expensive forms of identification to vote for as much as $250 in some cases.
But here’s the truth: There are already so many rights that Americans living in poverty can’t access simply because they can’t afford a lawyer. This includes rights in housing, veterans’ benefits, disability access and many other areas of our civil justice system. This is called the access to justice gap, and it’s one of the most urgent — and under-discussed — civil rights issues of our time.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order, you’ve heard the phrase: “If you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.” What you might not know, however, is that this protection applies only to criminal cases, not civil ones, even though both have the power to shape lives — and livelihoods — forever.
If, for instance, you are wrongfully evicted from your home and need to appeal; or if you suffer a medical emergency and need to declare bankruptcy; if you are in an abusive relationship and need a restraining order; if you are being unfairly sued by a debt collector and need to fight back, you can only do so if you can afford to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in legal fees. And four out of every five low-income Americans cannot.
It’s estimated that only one in 10 tenants battling eviction arrive at court with a lawyer by their side, even though you’re twice as likely to receive a favorable judgment if you have one. And even fewer Americans have legal representation when they are being sued by debt collectors.
It’s madness: Our country has designed its system of poverty law in such a way that you can only access your rights if you can pay a fee. This defies not just decency but common sense, because if you’re facing bankruptcy, eviction or debt collection you are, by definition, probably not going to be able to afford a lawyer.
This injustice barely registers in the national conversation about civil rights — yet it prevents millions of Americans, who are disproportionately Black and brown, from enjoying their basic protections.
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