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Rethinking the Relationship between the Courts and the Poor

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A new law passed by the General Assembly this year waived the interest on court fines and penalties accrued by prison inmates. To get an idea of what that could mean to a felon re-entering society, consider the example of a man identified by the first name of Lacy. Of the $7,740 he owed the courts, almost $2,200 of that was accrued as interest while he served his ten-year prison sentence.

“That’s real money” to a man in Lacy’s situation, O. Randolph Rollins, president of the Drive to Work program, said yesterday during the organization’s annual luncheon. Crank the numbers: That $2,200 accounted for 28% of what Lacy owed.

While Lacy’s case was unusual in the amount of interest he racked up — most prison inmates wind up serving only two or three years, Rollins said — there are thousands of cases like his in a state where about 12,000 offenders are released from state prisons each year.

Unlike credit card companies and payday lenders, Virginia courts have the power to deprive people of their drivers’ licenses as a goad to make them pay up. Drive to Work focuses on helping Virginians pay off their court debt and restore their driver’s licenses so they can become productive members of society. Two thousand dollars “sounds like a small problem to most of us,” Rollins said, “but it’s not a small problem to people who have lost their license.”

Trapping people in a vicious cycle of debt, interest, suspended licenses, and inability to hold a job is not the only way in which Virginia courts prove vexing to the poor. Thousands of Virginians lack the means to hire an attorney to assert their rights in civil disputes.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants were entitled to a court-appointed attorney, said John Whitfield, executive director of the Virginia Access to Justice Commission, in the Drive to Work keynote address, the high court did not address the difficulty poor people have finding a lawyer for civic cases. Only about 20% of the civil legal needs of the poor are met by legal aid and pro bono work, he said.

The United States Pledge of Allegiance concludes with the phrase, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” said Whitfield, but access to justice hinges largely upon a citizen’s ability to afford a lawyer. A series of studies have found that when the poor square off against others in civil cases — landlord-tenant disputes, child custody, unemployment claims, immigrant children facing deportation, domestic violence — the poor fare far better with legal representation than not.

“There can be no equal justice when the outcome depends upon your ability to hire a lawyer,” Whitfield said.

For decades, reformers have tried to close the “justice gap” by increasing the supply of lawyers available to the poor, mainly by means of pro bono work and government-funded legal aid. But not much has changed in forty years, he said. The Virginia Access to Justice Commission, created in 2013, is trying a different approach — reducing the need for lawyers.

The Commission is pushing two broad approaches. The first is to simplify court procedures so the poor don’t have to hire attorneys to negotiate the tangle of rules and regulations. One example: Expand the scope of small claims court, in which lawyers are not needed to settle minor disputes. Another: Write forms in plain English. Some courts send out notices entitled “Warrant in Debt,” which sounds like a criminal procedure even though it’s not. People think they need a lawyer but they don’t. Why not change the name of the document to something everyone can understand? A third example: Simplify forms so even people with no formal education can fill them out. Some states have fill-in-the-blank forms for uncontested divorces. Why not Virginia?

The other broad approach is to use technology to make legal information accessible to anyone with access to the Web, says Whitfield. A self-help website, linked from the Virginia Supreme Court website, embedded with artificial intelligence helps people navigate the Virginia court system without the need for a lawyer. The website can answer a lot of questions without the need to pay a lawyer. Citizens can post legal questions on the website and volunteer attorneys patrolling the site can provide answers to matters they feel comfortable addressing.

(This column first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of Bacon’s Rebellion)

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