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A poor excuse for justice

A growing gap in legal aid needs to be closed for the sake of equal justice.

A POOR PERSON who commits a crime has the right to an attorney.

A poor person in a civil case does not.

Not even if there's a risk of losing their home or a child or protection from abuse.

Poor people in such cases represent themselves.

This in a nation that promises equal justice; in a state where lawmakers spend millions of tax dollars on lawyers to defend them when they're in trouble.

Seem fair?

And, yes, there are legal-aid groups to serve indigent clients. They're overburdened, unable to meet expanding demand.

"Many people don't know there's no right to representation in civil matters," says Sam Milkes, director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network. "We're meeting about 20 percent of the need."

That "need," Milkes and others note, encompasses tens of thousands of people statewide: in landlord/tenant cases, where 90 percent of tenants have no lawyer; in child-custody cases, where both sides are unrepresented; in domestic-violence cases, where those seeking protection have no right to counsel.

Catherine Carr, of Community Legal Services in Philly, says, "One of every two people is turned away for some reason, and that's only the people who find us."

Legal resources, she says, are down sharply as government funding cuts and the lingering effects of recession double-team those fighting mortgage foreclosures or challenges to benefits for which they already qualify, for example.

If you think this is some liberal, government giveaway deal to keep social do-gooders employed in Democratic-run cities, think again.

"It's not fair," says the Republican chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Montco's Stewart Greenleaf. "People are walking into courtrooms by themselves."

He calls equal access "one of the most critical justice issues we face today."

Greenleaf is holding a public hearing tomorrow at Philadelphia Bar Association headquarters on Market Street near City Hall where, among others, Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille is scheduled to testify.

"The question is," Castille says, "are people representing themselves really going to get justice?"

The hearing is part of an effort by the local and state bar and social-justice advocates. It's the second of three. The first was in Harrisburg earlier this month. A third is to be held in Pittsburgh this summer.

Milkes says the problem is statewide but "worse in rural areas where there are fewer resources."

The initial goal is to raise awareness of the issue. The ultimate goal is addressing it at a time when government money is scarce.

Castille says it could cost $1 billion to fund counsel in all civil cases, but he supports funding cases involving "a person's basic rights," such as health or shelter.

Greenleaf hopes to find consensus to provide new resources.

He and others talk of some state funding coupled with surcharges on civil-suit filings and increased pro-bono work by the organized bar.

The issue dramatically affects individual lives and can increase societal costs.

And although it can't completely be addressed, it's easy to ameliorate.

There are enough lawyers in the Philly bar (13,000) and the state bar (28,000) to provide more pro-bono work.

It's no real burden on those filing civil suits to pay a little more to fund it.

And our Legislature? When leaders say they can't find funds to give low-income folks a shot at justice, ask them this:

Where do you find $300 million a year to operate?

Where do you find $140 million to keep unspent in your own slush fund?

Where did you find $5.8 million to hire lawyers when you were being investigated for handing out $3.7 million in bonuses to your staff?

The Legislature lives by the idiom "charity begins at home." But this isn't charity. It's an opportunity to move closer to equal justice. It ought to be taken.