Amid the uproar surrounding the Trump administration’s efforts to wrench migrant children from their families in 2018, officials tacked on an additional, little-noticed affront to decency. Where unaccompanied minors had previously been afforded a chance at securing legal representation, with the federal government’s assistance, the administration stepped in to impede that process. That left some vulnerable, frightened youngsters on their own as they faced the intricacies of immigration court and the risk of deportation.
The move reflected the Trump administration’s pattern of disregard, or outright hostility, for safeguarding the rights of low-income and marginalized people in other civil legal processes. More than half a century ago, the Supreme Court established a right to legal counsel for anyone accused of a crime, but there is no such guarantee in civil proceedings. That means tenants facing eviction, parents battling to keep their children, domestic abuse victims seeking protection orders and others caught up in potentially life-altering litigation must often face it on their own if they lack the means to hire a lawyer.
The Obama administration sought to expand and improve legal aid in civil as well as criminal courts, sometimes by intervening in local lawsuits around the country with so-called statements of interest filed by the Justice Department. That initiative was curtailed by the Trump administration, which, among other steps, shuttered the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice. That Obama-era agency, founded under then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was dedicated to addressing substandard legal aid for indigent defendants and litigants. The Biden administration would be smart to renew that crusade, especially during a pandemic that has intensified the risks for low-income people facing loss of housing, domestic violence and debt.
Eviction is a particular danger for many American renters, and few have the means to make their case effectively in court. A study of eviction cases in Baltimore last year found that 96 percent of landlords were represented in court by a lawyer or agent; by contrast, just 1 percent of tenants had legal representation when faced with the loss of their homes. That’s a surefire recipe for injustice, and it is likely to result in a tsunami of suffering once the patchwork of federal, state and local moratoriums on evictions begins to unravel in coming months.
The need for civil legal assistance is widespread. A 2018 survey commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that a third of U.S. households faced family, debt or housing problems that risked entangling them in the civil legal system; many cannot afford a lawyer. Some states and localities have stepped in to provide legal assistance for low-income people in such high-stakes cases. A handful of major cities have done so for tenants facing eviction, and similar legislation is under consideration in the Maryland legislature. But the hodgepodge of policies and laws is a far cry from a safety net.
The Biden administration could advance the cause of justice through a concerted, high-profile push to make legal advice and aid more widely available to those who cannot secure it on their own. That would be a critical step toward repairing the widening chasm between haves and have-nots in America.
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