Dr. Aneesah Nadir –
As I approach almost 40 years in the profession of social work, the connection between social issues, poverty, economics and the lack of access to affordable, quality legal services is increasingly apparent. “Equal Justice Under Law” are words on the side of the U.S. Supreme Court Building that remind us of the hope and promise of justice. Most of us can recite the Miranda warning that reminds of us of our right to an attorney. We are continuously reminded that we should not speak with law enforcement officers without an attorney. Yet time and time again Muslims meet with the FBI without attorney representation. We attempt to handle serious legal issues without the help of an attorney.
Why? The poor and middle class are often unable to afford attorneys. At an average $250 per hour, most people would have to work several days in order to afford one hour of an attorney’s time. As a result, the poor and middle class are priced out of this fundamental right.
Those who lack access to quality, affordable attorneys suffer the consequence of not having good legal advice and counsel to make good legal decisions. As a result, they are continually treated unfairly because they were not able to afford good attorney representation. They lose the legal battle in cases of custody of their children, domestic violence and mental illness. They are deported, or suffer loss of employment. Eight of 10 Americans and nine out of 10 minorities don’t have a last will and testament because they can’t afford to have an attorney prepare it. Increasingly, many are representing themselves in court. According to the April 2016 issue of the Arizona Attorney Magazine, in 80 percent of the family court cases in Arizona and nationally one or both parties are representing themselves in court with little or no knowledge of the law.
For the 10th year in a row, Arizona proclaimed April as Access to Justice Month in order to highlight the need and to ensure everyone is able to access justice. This nationwide concern has led the Council of Chief Justices and the American Bar Association to establish Access to Justice Commissions in jurisdictions throughout the country.
Access to justice requires a multi-pronged approach. Nationally, attorneys are being encouraged to volunteer with organizations that provide free or discounted legal services. The public is being asked to contribute their state income tax dollars to fund qualified organizations that provide civil legal aid services. The Muslim community is being asked to donate to community civil rights organizations and legal funds. Legal insurance and legal coverage plans that charge small monthly fees are increasingly a way to enable low- and middle-income people to afford attorneys.
As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. said, “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.”