Today, people are rioting across the country because cellphones and cameras have made it possible to share police abuse and brutality instantly. Today, the dishonesty of prosecutors and other government officials is a factor in nearly half of all cases where the accused turns out to be innocent.1 Today, Americans are getting priced out of access to justice by high fees. As the costs of good lawyers have gone up and the pace of life has gone faster and faster, more and more Americans find themselves shut out of the justice system and unsure of how to get ahead. Struggling workers, indigent clients, and young people trying to move up from humble beginnings to the middle class are under-served by the legal market.
Today, access to justice might be one of the most important issues facing America's future. Access to justice is defined as the ability of people to seek and obtain solutions to their problems through formal or informal institutions designed to judge grievances. And you'll see a lot of articles about if you search the web. The American Bar Association, State bar associations, state governments, and non-profits have formed partnerships to address the problem. Legal professionals are starting to wake up and realize what under-served communities and minorities have known all along - in large part access to justice is weighted towards those with the money to play the game.
This isn't necessarily due to bad intentions. But lawyers cost money. Good lawyers cost even more money. "Repeat players" like businesses, corporations, or wealthy individuals often have much more experience with litigation because they are involved in the system over and over again in different ways. They have been through the process, they know what works and what doesn't, how to meet the deadlines, and how to maximize their chances for success. But spread out over society it means millions of people who face a justice system which is stacked against them, that sometimes can't understand them at all.
Georgia's Special Problem
In Georgia the problem is especially bad. Six counties in Georgia have no attorneys at all and another 56 counties have less than fifteen, it is a legal system in deep crisis.2 Attorneys have flocked to Atlanta and the surrounding Metro counties chasing lucrative paydays, and left hundreds of thousands of Georgians without reliable access to justice. The State has debated everything to improve the situation up to and including financial incentives for lawyers to relocate to outlying counties.
And the problem this situation creates is suffered disproportionately by the poor. The southern Georgia counties include more than 2/3rd's of those who live in the state below the poverty line. Federal and state budget cuts to legal aid societies have slashed their capacity to meet the problem in recent years, taking away the few resources that were available. Many of the counties have only a single public defender, or a circuit public defender's office might have to split their attention over an enormous geographic area, appearing in small county courts only once or twice a week. Indigent clients and those who can't afford the services of an attorney have few options, and in some cases none.
How We'll Create Access to Justice
My experience with the Protective Order Project and the Inmate Legal Assistance Project have exposed me to the people who slip through the cracks and need our help most. Justice Unlocked wants to step in and fill this gap. As an aspiring 501(c)(3) organization we will be able to raise money through grants, foundations, and private donors in a way that will allow us to "crowdfund" legal services and provide representation to people for cheap or free. And we'll do it not merely for a public relations face-lift, but as the primary focus of our business. We'll use a sliding scale based on income, we'll help people navigate the court system and get the access to justice they need. And we'll do it for as low as $40 dollars an hour. Our goals as a charity will be to run an open and efficient business where our volunteers, supporters, and clients all feel empowered to actively direct and guide us. We want to not just help the community, we want to empower the community by providing help in criminal defense, family law, and small business guidance that can help people step up into a better life.
Our office will run modern legal practice software and the latest technologies to help us keep our costs down and our service efficient, and we'll actively recruit and hire interns, volunteers, and employees directly from the underprivileged communities we serve - providing a strong focus on legal education. And our clinics will provide holistic legal representation for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, or human trafficking. Our goal ultimately, for every client who walks through our door, will be to not just help them with their legal problem, but to give them the power to take control of their lives and put them back on the right track.
And with your help, I really believe we can make access to justice a reality in Georgia.
1. National Registry of Exonerations