Not everyone has equal access to justice. Let’s change that

By Andrew Mead, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 28, 2014, at 5:31 a.m.

The final phrase of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance is a simple and elegant expression of the core values that have inspired and directed our society since the dawn of our Republic: “With liberty and justice for all.”

The Declaration of Independence introduced the world to the utterly revolutionary concept that all citizens are equal before the law. In the centuries that followed, we have made enormous strides in the effort to make these lofty aspirations a reality. We can take pride in our accomplishments, but this undeniable fact remains: We still have a great distance to go to truly bring the founding fathers’ bold vision to full fruition.

Law brings order to society. In the failed governments of the world, the collapse of the rule of law condemns its citizens to a living hell. With no resort to courts or other legal authorities, violence becomes the only means to resolve disputes. The contender with the greatest ability to impose violence upon others emerges the victor.

As citizens of the United States and the state of Maine, we are confident that our institutions of justice will apply and enforce the rule of law. We are assured that our conflicts and disputes will be resolved peaceably by our courts, in which all citizens may obtain equal justice before the law.

Unfortunately our vision does not always line up with reality.

In order to obtain justice, one must know what the law is and have access to the courts. The law can be daunting, and an average person can easily be discouraged by its breadth and complexity. The prospect of going to court without a firm knowledge of the law or court procedures can be downright overwhelming. It is the assistance of a lawyer that truly makes the process accessible to all.

Unfortunately, many of our residents have no ability to secure the assistance of a lawyer to help them with legal matters. For these individuals, the inability to gain legal assistance produces, for all practical purposes, a denial of access to justice.

We are fortunate to have civil legal service organizations that have strived to offer legal assistance to the disenfranchised in the past. These organizations’ efforts to provide access to justice have produced tangible, widespread benefits for Maine’s families, children, employers, schools and communities.

In addition, as a recent study in North Carolina concluded, the local economy reaps an across-the-board positive impact when access to justice initiatives are undertaken. Sadly, draconian cuts to the funding of civil legal service organizations over the last two decades have threatened to eliminate them altogether.

As a society dedicated to justice for all, we cannot allow that to happen.

The Justice Action Group, a coalition of legal service providers and dedicated institutions and individuals, will sponsor “Access to Justice Day” in Maine on Tuesday, March 4. Events will take place at the State House in Augusta to showcase civil legal service organizations and to reaffirm our commitment to the important goal of access to justice for all.

Please join us, and encourage your legislators to support access to justice in Maine.

Justice Andrew Mead serves on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

 

http://bangordailynews.com/2014/02/28/opinion/not-everyone-has-equal-access-to-justice-lets-change-that/ printed on November 27, 2014