By: August Bequai, Esq.
“To be poor and independent
is an impossibility.”
While Virginia’s three northern suburbs are the wealthiest in the United States, thousands of its citizenry remain homeless, poor, and destitute. While more than 900,000 Virginians suffer from some form of disability, assistance programs for them; including for those who reside in the state’s three wealthiest suburbs, are, at best, cosmetic.
A 2017 study by the National Center for State Courts (“NCSC”) found that Virginia’s poor and disabled enjoy little or no legal representation in its courts. The NCSC study concluded that a lack of legal representation and poverty, appear to go hand in hand.
The NCSC study also found that the poor and disabled, lacked adequate legal representation in 99 percent of the state’s General District Court cases, and 62 percent of its Circuit Court cases. For a state which prides itself on helping the needy and disabled, the NCSC study speaks ill of its efforts to provide legal services to this segment of our society.
A 2017 study by the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”) confirmed the same. According to the LSC study, more than 50 percent of the poor and disabled in the country are in dire need of basic legal assistance. The existing nationwide legal aid programs do not suffice to meet those needs. According to the LSC study, legal assistance for the poor and disabled in wealthy Virginia, fares no better.
To help address the dire need for legal services for the poor and disabled in Virginia, the Virginia Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission launched several initiatives to address the justice gap; largely by encouraging Virginia attorneys to commit more time to pro bono work. The Commission’s efforts have also prompted the local courts and bar associations to promote pro bono efforts throughout the state.
While these efforts are commendable, yet they fall short of addressing the many legal needs of Virginia’s poor and disabled in Virginia. While Virginia’s legal profession, well into the 1980s, was viewed as an economic bastion of the community; the overwhelming majority of its young lawyers today are saddled with significant student debts. Compounded by a highly competitive and shrinking legal market. Many in the public who can afford legal services, are turning, in large numbers, to the Internet and non-lawyer professionals for their legal needs.
One young lawyer recently lamented: “How can I do pro bono work, when I gross less than $10,000 annually and I am saddled with an $85,000 student debt?” The son of a friend who was severely disabled in one of America’s foreign wars, said it best: “I gave my country all I had, and now I have to beg George Soros for legal help.”
It is now time for Virginia’s legal edifice to seriously consider a state funded Legal Aid program; comparable to the state’s Medicaid program. The existing legal model to help Virginia’s poor and disabled falls short of the existing need. Handouts from a dozen billionaires; who fund legal programs that conform to their political whims, is not the proper vehicle for one of the wealthiest states in the country to provide for the basic legal needs of its less fortunate citizenry. A state Legal Aid program would also tap the talents of thousands of young Virginia lawyers, who now face economic difficulties.
A state with the three most affluent counties in America, needs to seriously consider funding legal services for its poor and disabled from its treasury. Pro bono efforts, while commendable, will no more address the legal needs of Virginia’s poor and disabled, than private charity alone can address their medical needs. It is time that we seriously consider a state funded Legal Aid program.
Gus Bequai, Esq., is the Editor in Chief of Invictus. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All opinions expressed here are those of the author and not the Diversity Conference or the Virginia State Bar.