Access to Justice

The Vermont Supreme Court has declared that November is Access to Justice Month. This designation casts light on the fact that each year thousands of Vermonters enter courthouses as plaintiffs or defendants without a lawyer. Without legal representation, they do not have equal access to justice and can suffer profound impacts on their housing, family, livelihood and wellbeing.

Many Vermonters simply decide not to go to court to resolve legal disputes. When they do go to court, it is often without legal representation. Statistics from Vermont in 2012 show that 94% of defendants in small claims cases represented themselves; 84% of parentage cases and 54% of divorces involved at least one self-represented litigant; 90% of the defendants in landlord-tenant cases were self-represented compared to only 24% of plaintiffs; and 84% of defendants in collections and 74% in foreclosure cases represented themselves, usually facing lawyers on the plaintiff’s side. There is no reason to believe that this rate of self representation has substantially changed in recent years.

Having legal representation in court, particularly when facing a represented opponent, can be critical for equitable access to the civil justice system. Some low-income Vermonters are fighting for custody of their children or are seeking protection from an abusive spouse. Others may become homeless due to eviction or foreclosure. Elderly Vermonters may be victims of fraud. Unable to afford a lawyer, such individuals must either forego judicial remedies, perhaps failing to show up in court at all, or proceed at a disadvantage, particularly when they face a lawyer for the other side.

Many organizations are trying to alleviate this situation. The Vermont State Bar Association provides assistance through its pro bono (providing legal representation for free) and low bono (providing it at reduced rates) programs. The Vermont Law School assists through its South Royalton Legal Clinic. Vermont Legal Aid, a non-profit corporation, provides free civil legal services to those with a disability, living in poverty, or over age 60. Its partner, Legal Services Vermont, provides a legal advice hotline and coordinates pro bono services of private lawyers through the Vermont Volunteer Lawyers Project. Those facing eviction can receive assistance through the Pro Bono Eviction Clinic also run by Legal Services Vermont. Unfortunately, because of inadequate funding, these groups are able to assist only a fraction of those in need of assistance or representation.

It would be to the State’s economic benefit if more indigent litigants received legal representation. A recent report, Economic Impacts of Civil Legal Assistance Programs in Vermont, shows that money invested in providing legal services to Vermonters has a high rate of return. The report quantifies the economic impact that legal services for low-income citizens have on the Vermont economy. It determined that every dollar invested in such services returns eleven dollars to the economy. The returns to individuals and families include SSI, SSDI, and other Social Security benefits; Medicaid and Medicare-funded reimbursements; child and spousal support payments; and Veteran’s benefits. Often these returns are coming into the State economy from Federal programs. In addition, legal aid organizations in Vermont also achieved cost savings for the State. By preventing incidences of domestic violence, they reduced the need for emergency treatment and lower law enforcement costs. They also saved by avoiding the costs of foreclosure, and avoiding the costs of emergency shelters and other costs of homelessness by preventing evictions. These returns and cost savings were obtained when litigants were provided legal counsel. And the benefit is not solely monetary – the income generated or saved goes into the pockets of individuals and families to pay for groceries, rent, medicine, clothing, and transportation, providing a level of stability to these families.

In the upcoming session, the legislature should keep in mind the benefit of ensuring that indigent litigants have access to legal representation. Doing so not only provides significant economic returns, but also fulfills the State’s obligation to provide equal justice under the law.