"...And Justice for All?"
Two recent City Club speeches featured individuals who spoke eloquently about the barriers low income and poor people have with the American Justice system. On May 1, they featured Thomas Mesereau Jr. of the Mesereau Law Group who talked about the importance of Pro Bono work by lawyers, judges and all those working with the judicial system as part of Law Day. Then a week earlier they featured Martha Bergmark of Voices for Civil Justice who gave a defense of expanding access to legal representation for those facing civil court cases. These two together bookend a really nice look at the big holes in the American system for distributing justice.
NEOCH partners with the Cleveland Bar Association on Homeless Legal Assistance Program, and has struggled with both topics for discussion. We only serve people with Civil Matters since we do not have the insurance for criminal cases. We always have a hard time attracting attorneys to the program and the number of civil cases is overwhelming. As Ms. Bergmark described these are serious cases including the loss of housing, loss of custody of children and the loss of income in bankruptcy. Bergmark does a great job of describing the need for access to counsel for low income people. There is a strong commitment to pro bono work in the legal community, but often that is soft legal work like consulting with the Cleveland Orchestra or serving on the Board of the Center for Families and Children. These are both worthy organizations who need legal help, but it is not the same as keeping poor people out of the shelters or settling income disputes with employers that might save someone's home.
We have seen a decline in the number of legal clinics that we offer to homeless people partially because we cannot find enough volunteers to help. It is very difficult to find help with civil matters such as child custody and divorce. If you are not a victim of domestic violence, it is impossible to find help with a divorce from a lawyer. These cases go on for a long time and it is just overwhelming for a volunteer to be involved in these cases for years. Often, a mother can be tied to this guy who is dragging her into more and more financial peril because she cannot get a divorce. Her credit will be wrecked sometimes for life which makes it difficult to get a job, housing or a college degree all because she is tied to this man. Almost all of the programs in Ohio with lawyers for homeless people have gone out of business over the last 10 years.
I recommend listening to these two podcasts from the Cleveland City Club. The great legal minds in Cleveland need to get together to provide funding for bolstering programs like Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance to have those opportunities to serve low income individuals. They need to expand CHLAP and other volunteer driven projects. It would be great if we had lawyers at the municipal courts to help with evictions of other matters like we do in the criminal courts. We need more opportunities for low income people to walk in to see a lawyer to answer the question "...do I have a case or what can I do to defend myself?"
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