The Justice Gap

The U.S. civil justice system is too complex to navigate without legal assistance, but lawyers are often not available to people who need them most. Unlike criminal cases, there is no right to free legal counsel in most civil cases. Legal services are often beyond the reach of many low- or even moderate-income people who earn too much to qualify for free legal aid, forcing them to navigate the system alone with potentially very negative personal and financial consequences to them.

Joe Gratz, Gavel, Courtroom

Many residents of the District of Columbia face these challenges. Thousands struggle daily with legal problems critical to their lives, with attendant potential loss of shelter, fear of deportation, or family strife. According to the most recent studies, over 95% of defendants appeared without legal counsel in the District’s Landlord/Tenant Court, Family Court paternity and child support cases, and Superior Court Probate Division small estate matters, and 98% of both petitioners and respondents in the Domestic Violence Unit of the Superior Court appeared without counsel.[1]

In order to qualify for free legal aid, an individual or family usually must have income below 200% of the federal poverty level.[2] For 2015, 200% of the poverty guidelines were $23,540 for a one-person household and $48,500 for a four-person household in the 48 contiguous states and District of Columbia.[3] Based on the Census Bureau’s March 2014 Current Population Survey, one study estimated that (using 2013 data) approximately 35% of the District’s residents qualified for legal aid, i.e., their incomes were under 200% of the federal poverty level, and a further 21% fell into the 200% to 399% poverty level category,[4] for an astounding total of 56% below 400% of poverty level. Applying that 21% against the District’s population (per the 2010 Census) of 601,723, a reasonable estimate of DC residents too “wealthy” for legal aid, but still below the 400% poverty level standard for “moderate income,”[5] exceeds 126,000. Legal fees for the civil matters frequently faced by this population are simply not affordable. For example, according to a 2011 national survey of consumer law attorneys’ fees, the average hourly billable rates in the District were $287 for small firms of four or fewer lawyers and $478 for firms of five or more.[6]

Given this crisis in access to legal assistance in the civil justice system, our firm has developed practice areas that correspond to the problems District residents most commonly encounter without a lawyer. Please click here to review our practice areas in more depth, and here to estimate your eligibility for our services.


 

[1] District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission, Justice for All? An Examination of the Civil Legal Needs of the District of Columbia’s Low-Income Community (2008), available at http://www.dcaccesstoiustice.org/reports.

[2] See 45 CFR Part 161 1 and Appendix A thereto.

[3] 2015 Federal Poverty Guidelines, at http://aspe.hhs.eov/povertv/15DOvertv.cffn

[4] Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, State Health Facts, Distribution of Total Population by Federal Poverty Level, at http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-bv-fpl/.

[5] E.g,, treating 100% to 400% of the poverty line income as “middle class” in the Department of Health and Human Services’ discussion of tax credits available under the Affordable Care Act, at http://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/facts/timeline/timeline-text.html.

[6] Ronald L. Burdge, United States Consumer Law Attorney Fee Survey Report 2010-201 1 (2011), at 16.