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Legal Services Corporation president to speak at Akron Law

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 11, 2016

“Equal Justice Under Law,”—these four words are engraved on the façade of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

But many legal professionals say they are questioning whether achieving this ideal is possible when it comes to civil matters. This as the number of pro se litigants continues to grow due to cuts in legal aid funding and/or the inability to qualify for assistance.

On Nov. 15 James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in Washington D.C., will discuss those concerns and others during a seminar at The University of Akron School of Law.

Entitled “An American Paradox: How the Legal System Really Functions Today in a Nation That Espouses ‘Justice for All,’” Sandman will address members of Akron Law’s social justice lawyering class.

“Every day across America tens of thousands of people walk into courtrooms alone, without a lawyer, because they cannot afford to pay for one and have no constitutional right to a lawyer in civil matters,” said Sandman, who took the helm at LSC in January 2011.

Established by Congress in 1974, LSC is an independent nonprofit that provides financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. It funds 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

“In many courts today, more than 90 percent of the tenants facing eviction don’t have a lawyer even though more than 90 percent of landlords do,” said Sandman. “It’s also quite common that domestic violence victims seeking orders of protection and parents seeking child support don’t have a lawyer.”

He said it’s very difficult for the legal system to work in a way that guarantees equal justice when large numbers of people are without representation.

“Our legal system was created by lawyers for lawyers based on the assumption that everyone would have a lawyer,” said Sandman. “The system is not ‘user friendly’ for a layperson seeking to represent himself/herself.”

Sandman said simply increasing funding for legal aid will not guarantee access to justice.

“There are strict income eligibility guidelines for legal aid,” he said. “The current income cutoff for eligibility is $14,850 for an individual and $30,375 for a family of four. We need to recognize that large numbers of people are out of necessity using our court system without a lawyer and we need to rethink the system with that reality in mind. 

“It’s important to have standardized, user-friendly court forms and plain-language online self help resources. We also need to simplify legal processes in high-volume, high-stakes cases,” said Sandman. “The system is more complicated than it needs to be.”

Brant Lee, law professor and director of diversity & social justice initiatives, said the goal of the seminar is to raise awareness about the large number of people who are unable to secure legal representation for civil matters.

“People’s lives are being dramatically impacted by the inability to obtain legal representation,” said Lee, who together with associate clinical professor Joann Sahl, teaches the social justice lawyering class.

The class is part of the social justice lawyering clinic, which gives students the chance to provide legal assistance to community members who are in need under the supervision of Lee and Sahl.

“We have invited speakers here before,” said Lee. “We had Mike Brickner from the ACLU of Ohio here a few weeks ago and we also invited Daniel Dew from The Buckeye Institute to talk about some of the things they are working on.”

The Sandman seminar gets underway on Nov. 15 at 5:40 p.m. in room 160 at the law school. It runs 90 minutes and includes a question-and-answer period. Members of the public are also welcome to attend. There are no pre-registration requirements. For more information, email Professor Lee at btlee@uakron.edu.