Justice for all means having access to a lawyer

By Associate Dean Deirdre Smith, Director of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic

Excerpt from an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News

Professor Deirdre SmithEvery year thousands of Mainers face major legal problems on their own, without the help of a lawyer. While our indigent defense system for serious criminal matters has received recent attention, we should not overlook the other part of the legal system where Mainers do not always receive the help they need — our civil justice system.

The words are familiar from television crime shows: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” Those rights apply, however, only to those arrested for a crime. In most civil (meaning noncriminal) legal cases, you do not have a right to counsel. But the stakes can be just as high in such cases as in criminal ones: access to health care, custody of children, protection from domestic abuse or elder exploitation, detention as an immigrant, benefits as a veteran, remaining in your home.

In civil cases, too, you do much better if you have a lawyer. As noted in “Civil Justice for All,” a report published in 2020 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, lawyers are specially trained to help people understand their legal options and resolve disputes favorably. With this assistance, clients can often “achieve positive results without spending unnecessary time, money, and effort in court proceedings.”

Mainers who cannot afford a lawyer in a civil case may seek help through one of the state’s nonprofit legal aid programs or the legal aid clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, where I work. While these programs serve more than 10,000 Mainers every year and help thousands more through outreach and education, limited funding forces them to turn away many more. This includes Mainers who may find it especially hard to navigate the complex rules and procedures involved in their civil cases: older residents; those with limited English proficiency or a disability; or those living in rural areas or lacking adequate access to technology. People who must represent themselves in civil cases are severely disadvantaged in a system designed for people represented by lawyers. As summed up in a recent editorial in the Washington Post, our country’s failure to guarantee a right to counsel in serious civil cases is a “profound injustice.”

To read the full op-ed, please visit the Bangor Daily New’s website.