“Justice for all” is the cornerstone of our democratic society. If you are charged with a crime and can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
But for tens of thousands of low-income Washingtonians who face devastating civil legal crises, the same right to an attorney is not guaranteed. Subsequently, justice is denied.
Fortunately, there’s an answer — civil legal aid.
According to the 2015 Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study, three out of four of the 1.2 million Washingtonians living in poverty will face an urgent civil legal crisis every year, and only one in four will have access to legal help.
The study shows that the average low-income household in Washington faces more than nine legal issues every year — nearly triple the number from a decade earlier. Even one unresolved legal problem can escalate into a series of complex and interconnected challenges that quickly endanger health, safety or financial security.
Fortunately, our state has recognized the wisdom of supporting civil legal aid for many years, both as a way to lift people out of poverty and to ensure a more just place to live for all of us. Thanks to a bi-partisan embrace of the findings of the legal needs study, our lawmakers increased funding for legal aid by $4.8 million during the 2017 legislative session.
This was an important step in the right direction that will help thousands of low-income families. But, there is still more of a need, and families are in crisis today. Our legislature must continue to invest in civil legal aid.
Having legal assistance in a civil case can mean the difference between homelessness and a roof overhead for families. It can protect disabled veterans, vulnerable elderly couples or mentally ill individuals from being victimized.
It can ensure that people can live and work free of discrimination. It can guard a single mother’s ability to support her family, or a father’s safety on the job.
Just consider an example, from Benton County, where civil legal aid helped protect a child like Ashley (name changed for anonymity).
When Ashley was 16 years old, she was living with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend — though both were in and out of jail for drug abuse. The living situation was not only a distraction, it was dangerous. Ashley was a full-time high school student and held a job. She desperately wanted to live on her own.
The Benton Franklin Legal Aid Society connected Ashley with a pro bono attorney who helped her with a successful emancipation, giving her the legal freedom to sign a lease and live on her own. Ashley went on to graduate high school, now holds a full-time job managing a local grocery store, and has reestablished a relationship with her mother.
Thanks to civil legal aid, Ashley found the legal protection she needed to ensure her safety and future.
We owe everyone in our state the chance to enforce their rights and live in a just society, not just those who can afford an attorney. The justice system works most effectively and humanely when there is an even playing field for all.
And civil legal aid doesn’t only benefit those who receive that direct support; it creates a stronger and more vital Washington. When families’ civil legal issues are resolved, they can devote their energies to their jobs, their families and their communities. They can participate more fully in our economy and our democracy.
Lawmakers face another challenging session this year. The high-dollar demand to fund education and mental health will dwarf countless other requests. Yet, just like last year, an increase in civil legal aid funding should not be ignored even if bigger budget issues occupy the limelight.
A relatively small increase in funding for civil legal aid will yield a substantial return on investment that pays off when justice for all becomes a reality for all.
Andy Miller is the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney and chairs the State Prosecutors’ Special Assault Committee. Diana Ruff is the 2017-2018 President of the Benton Franklin County Bar Association. Barbara Otte has been the Executive Director of Benton Franklin Legal Aid since 2006 and is a member of the Washington State Pro Bono Council.