Poor must have meaningful access to legal advice

These are tough economic times. Every news source every day delivers that message. We wonder, must we throw up our hands in frustration? Or is there something an individual can do?

We do have a voice. Legislators want to hear from us; to hear what is important to our community.

In 2003, a comprehensive study of Washington’s low-income households reported that 87 percent experience civil legal problems every year. We learned that only 12 percent of these households were able to get legal assistance for such basic human needs as housing, employment and family safety and security. Lack of legal advice meant that increasingly our low-income households were losing housing, losing unemployment benefits, or losing health insurance because they could not find or afford legal assistance. Loss of these basic needs cost all of us financially, but more important, they affect the core of our community.

Four years ago, your judiciary approached the Legislature through the Justice in Jeopardy Initiative to help fund legal aid for low-income families – attorney representation for parents, and services such as interpreters in the courts. When Justice in Jeopardy started, Washington ranked 50th among the states for support of court-related services. That support was only three-tenths of 1 percent of the state general fund budget! Today the amount has increased to seven-tenths of 1 percent of the budget, but we still rank 50th in the nation.

These gains, however modest, made a big difference in our communities. But now, with the state budget deficit reaching $9 billion, those gains are in jeopardy. The recession has dramatically increased families on the brink of poverty. Our friends, neighbors, and family are now included in those ranks. These folks never believed they would face foreclosure, lose their job, or have no health insurance because they are unemployed.

They didn’t see themselves one paycheck away from disaster. These are our neighbors who will be hurt most if the Legislature cuts these civil legal aid programs.

Funding for civil legal aid for Washington’s poor comes from two sources. The first, revenue from interest earned on lawyers’ trust accounts, has dropped precipitously. Because interest rates have plummeted to the lowest levels in years, that revenue dropped from $9.1 million in 2007 to $2 million today. As a result, civil legal aid programs in our community and across the state have been cut drastically.

The second source of funding for civil legal aid comes from the state and is administered by the Office of Civil Legal Aid. The Senate budget proposes a 20 percent cut in this program.

Keep in mind, most legal representation for needy families comes from volunteer, unpaid lawyers who work within the programs created by OCLA for our communities. Lack of funding will end those programs.

The consequences affect us all, not just the poor. When homes are foreclosed, neighbors suffer from sinking property values. When a parent is unemployed and loses health insurance, families turn to emergency rooms to fill the gap and increase the stress on our health care system. Domestic violence increases in hard times, placing more burdens on the foster care system and courts charged with protecting women and children.

We do not have to throw our hands up in frustration. You can help make sure that those affected most by this recession have meaningful access to crucial legal advice and protection.

Contact our legislators. Ask them to fund civil legal aid. It is vitally important to us all.

Thomas McPhee is a Thurston County Superior Court Judge and a member of the Justice in Jeopardy implementation committee.