Justice ain't much if you can't afford it. America needs to overhaul its civil law | Opinion

In America, we are raised with the promise of "justice for all." But after decades as a civil rights and civil legal aid lawyer, I know firsthand that our nation falls far short of that ideal. Not until we fix our broken civil justice system so that it serves everyone—not just the wealthy and the powerful – can we fulfill that promise.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s marked me for life. At my all-white public school in Jackson, Mississippi, I pledged allegiance daily to the ideal of justice for all, while around me a fierce battle raged over a system of racial apartheid that made a mockery of that pledge. I went to law school to become a civil rights lawyer, dreaming of doing my part to dismantle Jim Crow. In my youthful naivete, I thought that by the time I got my law degree, the legal work would be almost done and I would be too late to help.

I needn't have worried. In southeast Mississippi, where I founded the first civil legal aid program to serve the area in the 1970s, we won high-impact litigation to redress race discrimination in employment and housing, to secure the voting rights of African-Americans, and to end inhumane conditions at county jails.

But even as we used the legal system to fight racial injustice, we saw that access to the system was a privilege only for those who could afford it. Mississippi's civil courts themselves caused and exacerbated poverty and injustice. Take, for instance, what happened to my friend David Lipman, when he was still wet behind the ears as a legal aid lawyer in the Delta. Civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer called to ask for his help. On his drive to meet her, David had visions of the groundbreaking civil rights case Mrs. Hamer would ask him to handle.

Instead, he learned that a furniture company had wrongfully repossessed Mrs. Hamer's friend's couch, and she needed David's help to get it back. David may have thought Mrs. Hamer was testing him, assuring herself that he was ready for bigger leagues than the local small claims court, but I don't think that was all. As a former sharecropper, she saw and wanted to stop the misuse of small claims courts to strip people of their meager assets and keep them beholden to those with power and means.

Despite the progress won by the civil rights champions of Mrs. Hamer's generation, this is an ongoing national problem that damages the lives and livelihoods of millions. Over the years, it has worsened considerably.

Take for instance, the situation in debt collection courts across the country where we now have couch repossession on steroids. A handful of giant debt-buying corporations swamp the dockets of civil courts with many cases too stale to legitimately pursue. Consumers routinely lose, often because they don't show up to court since they don't know the stakes or because they're in court alone and are up against lawyers armed with robo-signed affidavits and intimate knowledge of the arcane procedures. This system causes people to suffer serious consequences like wage garnishments, stripped bank accounts, and even jail time.

Finding yourself in civil court alone, without information or legal help to make your case, is now the rule, not the exception. Today, in three out of four state civil court cases, one or both parties are without legal representation. This is a crisis with many faces, from Sonja, a disabled grandmother in rural North Carolina wrongfully threatened with eviction to Bill, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD facing homelessness in Los Angeles. Both were among the fortunate few who found their way to legal help from dedicated, but underfunded civil legal aid attorneys.

Fortunately, proven solutions are within reach. Chief justices of the highest courts in every state have called for court systems to provide support services to ensure all people have effective assistance for their essential legal needs. Major cities like New York have created a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction with successful results. Courts and policymakers are beginning to modernize and simplify court processes – like court-based self-help centers pioneered in California – so that fewer problems require a lawyer's help to solve in the first place.

There is a crisis in this country's civil justice system, but with new resolve and investment in systemic reforms and civil legal aid, we can achieve Fannie Lou Hamer's vision of a civil justice system that fulfills America's promise of justice for all.

Martha Bergmark is executive director of Voices for Civil Justice and former president of the Legal Services Corporation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​