July 2014 Bar Bulletin
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Access to Justice Is a Basic Human Right


"Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists ... it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."
-Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.
Address to the ABA Annual Meeting
August 10, 1976

In September 2003, the Washington Supreme Court and its Task Force on Civil Equal Justice Funding released The Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study (http://www.courts.wa.gov/newsinfo/content/taskforce/civillegalneeds.pdf). This study remains the most recent comprehensive study of its kind for our state.

These were among the study's key findings:

  • More than 75 percent of all low-income households in Washington experience at least one civil legal problem each year; in the aggregate, low-income people experience more than one million important civil legal problems annually.
  • Low-income people face more than 85 percent of their legal problems without help from a lawyer.
  • Legal problems experienced by low-income people are more likely to relate to family safety, economic security, housing and other basic needs than those experienced by people with higher incomes.
  • Low-income households in King County and certain other parts of the state are most likely to get help from a lawyer, but still face 85 percent of legal problems on their own.

Following upon the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), in which the U.S. Supreme Court established the right to counsel for indigent defendants in state criminal cases, the American Bar Association and several state bar associations have called for a right to counsel in civil matters in which the absence of counsel places an indigent person at risk of forfeiting basic human rights.

ABA Resolution 112A, adopted August 7, 2006 (http://www.courts.wa.gov/newsinfo/content/taskforce/civillegalneeds.pdf), states:

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