Low-Income Ohioans Who Need Legal Aid Face Obstacles
There’s a lack of money to support low-income individuals who need legal aid. What to do about that and how to remove other barriers for access to the civil justice system provoked a discussion at the Columbus Metropolitan Club where Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French said it’s not just about providing a lawyer to those who can’t afford one.
As member of the Supreme Court’s Task Force on Access to Justice that in March identified obstacles for disadvantaged Ohioans, Justice French said the legal needs for low income clients aren’t being met.
“This is not the cosmetic surgery of legal proceedings,” Justice French said. “Whether we are talking about medical care, whether we are talking about food benefits, disability benefits, housing, we’re talking about providing basic human necessities to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”
While there’s a need to hire more lawyers, Justice French said legal aid services for these individuals are desired, such as “self-help centers” at courts and outreach programs so low-income Ohioans know where to turn when they need legal help.
With little money coming from the General Assembly to help pay for these services, legal aid programs rely mainly on interest rates from client monies that lawyers put into a bank account. Interest rates have plummeted over the years affecting the amount of money supporting legal aid, but the number of Ohioans who qualify for help keeps increasing.
“Many of our clients, their lives are held together by duct tape,” said Tom Weeks, Ohio State Legal Services Association executive director. “We need to recognize that poor people need lawyers if they are going to participate equally and fairly in the justice system.”
Weeks agreed with Justice French that there are barriers for equal access to the justice system.
“There are some structural barriers out there, and I’ll be the first to admit that many of them are put in place by courts and by judges,” Justice French said.
Justice French said the task force recognized that courts across the state need more standardized forms and low-income individuals must have easier access to the justice system.
She said the Supreme Court could do more to improve the lives of those who don’t know where to turn when they get into a legal bind.
“I think that the Supreme Court of Ohio needs to be more involved. We need to be there as a partner to all of the legal aid societies,” Justice French said. “I definitely see that commitment going forward.”
Joining Justice French and Weeks on the panel discussion was Micah Berman, an assistant professor of public health and law at The Ohio State University’s College of Public Health and Michael E. Moritz College of Law.