It’s a core American value that equal justice under law is a right. But for people with civil legal problems, justice is all too often a privilege reserved for people of means: the means to hire an attorney, the means to look up solutions online, or even sometimes just the means to drive to the next parish over.
For more than a decade, Louisiana’s state budgets provided no funding to meet Louisianans’ civil legal needs. The result was a critical shortage of front-line civil legal aid attorneys. Even though Louisiana has four law schools and more than 20,000 registered attorneys, there are only 150 full-time attorneys serving low-income and marginalized communities — just one for every 11,250 income-eligible people.
Another result of this generational underfunding has become clear this month, as the Louisiana Access to Justice Commission revealed that civil legal resource deserts cover 60% of the state and contain more than a third of residents living under 200% of the federal poverty level. These legal resource deserts are at least a 45-minute drive from any civil legal assistance.
Being unable to get the civil legal help one needs can be devastating. An eviction can tarnish a renter’s record for life. An illness can go untreated because of a denial of health care benefits. An abusive relationship can continue because of a lack of access or too far of a drive to legal resources.
Only recently has Louisiana begun to address the underfunding of its civil legal resources. In 2019, the state restored funding for civil legal aid.
Adopting common sense solutions to the civil legal needs of our fellow Louisianans can increase resources and dramatically expand access to justice in our state. We can equip every courthouse with self-help centers, court navigators and courtroom assistants. We can build a stronger culture of limited-scope representation so people can pay only for the most essential services. We can bring legal resources to people where they are, creating service partnerships with public libraries, places of worship, colleges and universities, health care facilities, and other community partners.
We can no longer afford the costs of inaction. Every dollar invested in civil legal aid returns nearly tenfold to Louisiana communities in money we don’t need to spend on safety-net services. It is in the vital interest of our state to assist our people in their time of need.
My colleagues should support an increase in the appropriation for civil legal aid proposed in the general appropriations bill. An increased appropriation will provide access points to the areas of greatest need, providing contact with the 600,000 people living in civil legal resource deserts. These access points will provide Louisianans with life-altering civil legal resources. It is time to make green the legal resource deserts in the state of Louisiana, as we work to fulfill the promise of equal justice under the law.
Gary Carter of New Orleans is a state representative.