Saturday, May 3, 2014

Everyday law and common legal needs in America

Some twenty years ago the American Bar Association undertook a general survey of everyday legal needs in the United States. Legal Needs and Civil Justice: Major Findings from the Comprehensive Legal Needs Study. One of the interesting findings was that many problems in life were not properly recognized as being legal problems or as having a significant legal component.

Major Findings and Conclusions

  1. Most people facing situations that have a legal dimension do not turn to the civil justice system for help.
  2. Even counting the efforts many people make to handle problems on their own or to get help from outside the legal system, substantial proportions of low- and moderate-income households still may need legal help.
  3. The kinds of legal problems reported by low- and moderate-income households are more alike than different. They are about bread and butter issues that come up in everyday life.
  4. Especially disadvantaged when it comes to needed legal help are households just above and just below the line that determines eligibility for publicly-funded legal services.
  5. Even with their combined efforts, the private bar and publicly-funded legal services programs now serve only a small portion of legal needs reported by low-income households.

The Challenge

"Taken together, these findings and conclusions sound an alarm that the civil justice system of the United States is fundamentally disconnected from the lives of millions of Americans. It must do more to address the personal legal needs of the American people if the nation is to make good on its commitment to equal justice."

More recently, the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2013 ranked the United States in eight areas compared to 96 other countries in the world (97 total, including the U.S.). The comparison did not look at the laws on the books so much as it looked at how laws were enforced and how well the legal system functioned. It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't great either.

U.S. world rankings:
  • Limited government powers: 17th out of 97
  • Absence of corruption: 18th out of 97
  • Order and security: 22nd out of 97
  • Fundamental rights: 25th out of 97
  • Open government : 13th out of 97
  • Regulatory enforcement: 19th out of 97
  • Civil justice: 22nd out of 97
  • Criminal justice: 26th out of 97
According to the the World Justice Project, millions of Americans can’t use our fine legal system because they can’t afford it. They have legal rights — to child support, Medicare benefits or protection against an improper home foreclosure — but they find these rights meaningless because they can’t enforce them. has an open forum for individuals to anonymously ask legal question, arranged by topic. Relying upon the number of questions asked in each category, here are the top ten civil legal concerns. If all criminal law categories were combined and included in this list, criminal law would rank number one in volume. But, criminal law issues generally have an urgency that many civil law matter lack.

  1. Child Custody & Support
  2. Wills, Trusts, and Estates
  3. Landlord & Tenant
  4. Bankruptcy, Debt, and Taxes
  5. Hiring, Firing, and Discrimination
  6. Marriage & Divorce
  7. Wages & Hours
  8. Immigration
  9. Adverse possession, mineral rights, water rights..
  10. Guardianship & Adoption
The Rule of Law is the bedrock of civil society. Success depends upon how well it works in actual day-to-day practice. When people encounter problems in life, it has a tendency to focus attention on ways to resolve those problems. This is what the legal system is for and if it fails, civil society fails. When I hear a state Governor channel the ghost of Andrew Jackson and tell a state Supreme Court to take its opinion and shove it, I cringe.

In April, when the Oklahoma State Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the execution of Clayton Lockett, citing concerns about the constitutionality of that law, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin decided to ignore the court.

It was just another brick in the wall.

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