Aiding the cause of justice

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 20, 2007

If you’re charged with domestic violence, aggravated assault, drunken driving or similar crimes in North Carolina and you’re unable to afford legal representation, you’re entitled to a court-appointed lawyer.
But that’s not the case in child custody disputes, home foreclosures, consumer fraud and many other civil matters where access to competent legal representation can make a huge difference in how a situation is resolved. In those circumstances, if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer on your own, you may find justice turning a blind eye on your predicament. Although some people find help through regional Legal Aid of North Carolina offices, many others who qualify for aid don’t receive it because the program doesn’t have enough resources to meet all the requests for help.
As the new president of the N.C. Bar Association, Janet Ward Black has made it one of her missions to change that skewed legal equation. The bar’s “4All” program ó a play on the Pledge of Allegiance’s “justice for all” phrase ó hopes to bolster the number of lawyers working through Legal Aid offices. The “4All” initiative is a multipronged effort that will focus on educating people about the critical importance of legal aid for the indigent, getting support for more state funding and encouraging more contributions from the legal community itself. That includes increased pro bono work from lawyers who are willing to donate their expertise to needy clients, as well as more financial support.
It’s a daunting undertaking, but one well worth the effort. It’s estimated that 3 million North Carolinians would qualify for help through Legal Aid, using federal poverty guidelines. Yet the program currently has only about 120 lawyers working through its 24 offices around the state. In many cases, poverty can compound the difficulties in which people find themselves. While the indigent can’t afford to hire legal representation, in many cases ó especially those involving senior citizens ó they’re more vulnerable to fraud, predatory lending and other abuses that often target those least likely to seek redress through the courts.
The 4All program will include several events in the coming months designed to highlight the issue, including an October summit in Raleigh and a statewide pro-bono service day in April that will enable people with legal questions to talk to an attorney at no cost. You can bet the phone lines will be busy that day.
As Black has noted in promoting the 4All mission, justice is the cornerstone of democracy. And as the nation’s pledge indicates, it should be available for all, not limited to those who can pay for it out of their own pocket.