On Tuesday, March 1, Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, brought messages of the urgent need for equal justice to SLU LAW students, faculty and staff gathered in the John K. Pruellage Courtroom.
The lecture, titled “An American Paradox: How the Civil Legal System Really Functions Today in a Nation that Espouses Justice for All,” concerned the lack of federal money for legal aid programs that is leading the United States to no longer live up to one of its founding principles.
“Equal justice under law is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It’s the most fundamental element of justice,” Sandman said, “We’re defaulting on our national pledge of providing equal justice under law.”
Nearly 20 percent of the United States population qualified for free legal aid in the past year. In St. Louis alone, it is 35.1 percent. With the size of the eligible population increasing and the minimal amount of resources that is available, Sandman said that legal aid offices are struggling to help every person in need.
Studies have found that legal aid offices in America have to turn away 50 percent of the people who come to them seeking for help due to the lack of funds. In Eastern Missouri, legal services had to turn away nearly 59 percent in past year.
“Around 1.8 million people appeared in New York courts without a lawyer in 2014,” said Sandman, “Included in that figure, were 96 percent of eviction cases, 95 percent of child support cases, and two-thirds of the state’s foreclosure cases that year.”
Sandman said that the turn away rates are so high across the nation because the funding for legal aid is at an all-time low when it is compared to the increasing number of people in need.
In the last federal budget, about $385 million was given from the government to the Legal Services Corporation. It is the lowest amount in the 40 year history of the LSC.
"That's about what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes for their pets," Sandman said.
The Legal Services Corporation is looking for ways to stop this problem and close the “justice gap” in the civil courts across America. In his lecture, Sandman gave five suggestions on how to do this and what the SLU LAW community can do to help:
- Increase funding for legal aid. The justice gap cannot begin to shrink without more funding to hire full time lawyers.
- Increase the awareness of the problem by getting new messengers to spread the word about legal aid to new audiences. According to Sandman, chief justices of state supreme court are the ideal allies and would be great advocates for legal aid since they are the guardians of the legal system and could speak directly to how large numbers of unrepresented people affect justice for everyone.
- Find a way to reengineer the service delivery for legal aid and make the tools available. Services could be offered on a continuum, from helping someone self-represent through technology all the way to an attorney.
- The legal system needs to be simplified. It needs to be more about justice and not about structure.
- More pro bono lawyers are needed. They are essential to supplementing resources, and having them working with legal aid lawyers can do tremendous things to dent the justice gap.
The lecture began with lunch and was followed by a short Q&A in the Louis W. Reithmann Jr. Pavilion to give students time to sit with the LSC president and ask him questions about service and social justice.
Sandman said that he was encouraged by the values and hard work that SLU LAW puts forth in serving the St. Louis community and asked students to reach out to clinical professors and legal aid lawyers to find ways in which they can address these goals together.