In late 2015, High Point and Elon universities conducted important polling for a commission established by N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin. The findings made a sad statement.
Eighty percent of respondents believed the wealthy receive better treatment in court than do average people; 73 percent thought ordinary citizens can’t afford to bring a case to court; and 76 percent believed a person without a lawyer was less likely to get a fair deal.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just public perception. Too often, it’s reality. And rather than getting better, the problem is likely to worsen. The goal of equal justice for all is fading further out of reach for more North Carolinians.
The new state budget inexplicably cut $1.7 million in legal aid funding derived, not from taxes, but from a $1.50 surcharge on some court fees. The reduction will limit the work that nonprofit legal aid agencies can do on behalf of low-income residents.
Legal aid lawyers represent low-income clients in civil cases such as evictions, fair-housing claims, child custody, predatory lending, government benefits and consumer protection. Problems that someone with means could solve easily by hiring an attorney can overwhelm someone who has to fend for himself against a well-represented corporation or government agency. A poor person is likely to lose if he’s taken to court by someone who has a lawyer, or if he tries to stand up for his rights against a more powerful adversary. Legal aid helps level the playing field, at least until its resources are exhausted.
It’s not even clear how this happened or why. A provision was placed in the budget to strip the funding and never debated. No one owns up to it. Someone — obviously someone with influence — opposes equal access to justice in our courts and found anonymous accomplices in the legislature who were willing to weaken legal assistance.
In criminal cases, defendants have a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel, even if they can’t afford to hire a lawyer themselves. Yet public defenders’ offices carry heavy caseloads, and private attorneys who agree to represent indigent clients are grossly underpaid for their work. A criminal defendant who can pay for a team of lawyers has a better chance of a favorable outcome in court, all other circumstances being equal.
At the same time, the legislature continues to make the courts more political. Judicial elections at all levels will be partisan; public funding for campaigns has been eliminated; contribution limits have been raised.
While most judges and court personnel are committed to the concept of equal justice, people with little money are at a disadvantage when it comes to choosing judges, paying for representation and securing fair outcomes.
Martin’s Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice, which delivered its report to the legislature this year, recommended increased legal aid funding.
“Resources are at the heart of access to justice,” the report said, noting that the benefits of legal aid include “stopping domestic abuse, preventing unnecessary homelessness and blocking illegal and predatory consumer practices.”
Unfortunately, “access to justice” is having a heart attack in North Carolina.