June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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June 2016 Bar Bulletin

Civil Legal Needs Study Update: An Alarm and an Opportunity

By Jay Doran

 

Every day, civil legal aid brings immediate and life-changing benefits to the lives of low-income people throughout our state. Every day, civil legal aid means the difference between being housed and homeless, being safe or in danger, and being employed or jobless. Every day however, most low-income Washingtonians are forced to face their problems alone, without the help of an attorney. Unlike criminal cases, the Constitution does not guarantee legal assistance in civil cases, no matter the potential outcomes, which can be life altering and long lasting.

To get a clear picture of this problem, the Washington Supreme Court commissioned an update of the 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study (CLNS), hoping to gain a present-day understanding of the substance and prevalence of civil legal problems in our state. The results were informative and alarming.

The CLNS Update finds that more than half a million individuals in our state are unable to access needed civil legal help each year, including: women and children fleeing domestic violence; senior citizens falling victim to fraud; immigrant children at risk of deportation; and veterans who cannot access their benefits. Sadly, only about 24 percent of low-income people who experience civil legal problems will receive the legal assistance they need to address their life-altering civil problems.

Without access to legal advice and representation, one unresolved civil legal problem can lead to a series of complex and interconnected legal issues that quickly threaten the health, safety and financial security of low-
income individuals, families and entire communities.

Among the most alarming findings is that the average number of legal problems per low-income household has tripled from 3.3 to 9.3 in the last 12 years.

People of color, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, persons with disabilities, and young people between the ages of 15–21 experienced substantially greater rates of civil legal problems than their respective counterparts.

The 2015 Update generated a treasure trove of data, all of which provides Washingtonians and Washington’s civil legal aid network (known as the Alliance for Equal Justice) with insights into the scope, breadth and nature of the barriers and challenges low-income people face. Here are a few more key findings from the study:

1. The most common types of civil legal problems have changed. Civil issues related to health care, consumer/finance and employment now represent the three most prevalent problems facing low-income Washingtonians. Issues related to housing, family law and employment topped the list of problems identified by the 2003 study.

2. There is a legal education problem. A majority of low-income people do not understand how the problems they face have a legal dimension or how they could benefit from legal help. In fact, nearly 50 percent of low-income households do not self-
diagnose the problems they experience as having a legal component, and as a result they do not seek legal help.

3. Most low-income people have low confidence in the state’s civil justice system. Nearly 60 percent do not feel “people like them” have the ability to use the courts to protect themselves or to enforce their legal rights. In other words, most low-income Washingtonians do not believe they — and people with similar identities — are treated fairly in our state’s civil justice system.

It is clear from this data that people who need legal help are not getting it. They are not able to access the justice system — a cornerstone of our government and our democracy. However, the system works for those who do get help. Sixty percent of those who receive legal help secure some resolution to their problem, but as stated above, only 24 percent of low-income people experiencing a civil legal problem are able to secure legal help.

Of the 1,375 low-income residents who completed the survey for the CLNS Update, more than 400 volunteered additional comments upon completion of the survey questions. While many offered gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of the study, some shared deeply personal stories, like this:


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