If you follow us on social media, you’ve probably seen the hashtags – #closethegap, #accesstojustice, #justice4all – but if you’re new to the A2J ecosphere, you might be wondering who’s justice we’re working for. And more importantly, why don’t they already have it? So, we thought we’d share this little primer on the Justice Gap – what it is, who it affects, and why you should care.
The Justice Gap is defined by the American Bar Association and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) as “the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs” (LSC, 2017). And to give you a better understanding of just how serious a problem that is, LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap Report found that:
- 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help
- 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year, including problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence.
- Low-income Americans approached LSC-funded legal aid organizations for support with an estimated 1.7 million problems. They received only limited or no legal help for more than half of these problems due to a lack of resources.
Now, “civil legal problem” isn’t just about getting sued or going through a nasty divorce. It also includes getting access to health benefits, veteran’s benefits and safe housing. It’s about labor laws, eviction notices and immigration. See, in a criminal case, you have a right to legal counsel and if you can’t afford that counsel, the system will help you get it. But in a civil proceeding? You’re all on your own. To quote Martha Bergmark, Executive Director for Voices for Civil Justice, “You can lose your children, you can lose your home, you can lose your livelihood without having legal help to get you through complicated legal proceedings.”
For every free legal aid attorney available to offer services, there are 6,415 low-income Americans in need of those services, leaving about 80% out in the cold. 40%-60% of middle-income Americans are in the same boat. So, we have a system to address the problem – it just doesn’t have the resources it needs.
And if the legal issue wasn’t problem enough, there’s also the economic and emotional distress it creates. According to the Justice Gap report, 70% of low-income Americans who personally experienced a civil legal problem in the past year reported that the problem “very much” or “severely” affected their lives. Research has shown that the stress of dealing with civil legal issues can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, which further complicate the situations of the families affected. The sooner individuals feel they have control over their legal issues, the less of an impact the legal problems will have on individuals’ mental health. Individual economic and emotional stability is essential for community stabilization which is why closing the Justice Gap is critical for economic and community development.
The Costs of Poverty
Florida is the 4th most populated state in the U.S. Approximately 14% of the population (about 3 million people) live below the poverty level with women aged 25-64 being the largest demographic struggling to make ends meet. Mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunts are more likely to experience poverty in Florida than men of comparable titles. Women are also more likely than men to suffer from depression and anxiety and struggle to meet nutritional needs.
It has been widely documented that being poor is expensive. The 2015 American Community Census data show that 59% of households with incomes less than $20,000 a year spend more than half of their income on rent alone. On average, low-income households face slightly higher food prices than other households face for the same basket of food, forcing them to choose lower quality items.
The poor are also more prone to more financial exploitation than higher income Americans. Low-income communities typically do not have as many regular banking institutions in their neighborhoods leaving residents with no personal bank accounts to manage their money. Regardless of their banking status, low-income residents are less likely to secure a standard loan and instead rely on payday loans with interest rates averaging 300%-400%. In one-third of payday loan situations, the borrower is forced to overdraw his or her checking account to pay off the loan, thereby incurring additional fees.
Every form of debt gets worse when sent to collections. Collection agencies themselves are known for charging exorbitant rates to repay debt then resell the same debt to another buyer leaving the borrower with a claim on their credit report even after payment is made in full with interest. Negative claims on credit reports result in limited access to housing, borrowing, and employment. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty trapping some individuals and families for generations.
Technology Creates A New Path
Our mission is to bridge the gap by creating free tools that connect those in need to the justice they seek. We don’t believe that technology is a “fix-all;” we simply seek to take advantage of the unique opportunity it provides. And we’re measuring our impact every step of the way.
If you’d like to help us continue our work, please consider donating today and support access to justice for all.