Spotlight Exclusives

Highlighting Inequities in the Civil Legal System

Elizabeth Arledge, Voices for Civil Justice Elizabeth Arledge, Voices for Civil Justice, posted on

Criminal justice reform has become a hot bipartisan issue in recent years. But inequities in the civil justice system also have enormous, and often overlooked, implications for millions of Americans. The national communications initiative Voices for Civil Justice builds awareness around civil justice issues and the importance of civil legal aid. Tomorrow, they unveil a new digital storytelling campaign to highlight personal stories around the civil legal system and illuminate potential solutions. Spotlight recently spoke with Voices’ Deputy Directory Elizabeth Arledge about the new project and the ways these issues intersect with poverty and opportunity. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us about the work of Voices for Civil Justice and the impetus for the new campaign – All Rise for Civil Justice?

We are used to hearing that if you are charged with a crime you have the right to have a lawyer assist in your defense, even if you cannot afford to pay for an attorney. This is because when you are facing criminal prosecution, your liberty is at risk. But if you’re experiencing a civil legal issue, you aren’t constitutionally guaranteed the help of a lawyer, even though you could lose your children, your livelihood, or your home. When dealing with a civil legal issue, if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer, it’s likely you’ll have to navigate the legal process by yourself. This is true even if the person or corporation on the other side of the case has legal counsel. Every year millions of Americans go to court alone in an attempt to defend something fundamental to the stability of their lives. For low-income families, the stakes are especially high.

Voices for Civil Justice was established five years ago to build awareness of the role of legal aid in ensuring fairness in our civil justice system. What we’ve discovered is that even beyond the uneven access to legal help, the civil justice system itself is in crisis. Courts are overwhelmed with people who are ill-equipped to navigate a complex process created by lawyers for lawyers, assuming people would have a lawyer by their side. And judges are not allowed to give guidance to people in front of them. If you go before a judge alone, without legal help of any kind, you’re almost certain to lose, regardless of the merits of your case.

Our new initiative, All Rise for Civil Justice (which will go live on Thursday, March 21), is a modest start to what we hope will be a big campaign to reform our civil justice system. If you’re going through the system by yourself and trying to navigate the system, the likelihood that the outcome will be fair is pretty small. We’re trying to draw attention to that and offer real solutions.

What do you want visitors to the All Rise for Civil Justice site to take way?

A big portion of our target audience are legal aid advocates, who we hope can use the tools and social media content in their own work. But if you don’t come from that background, we want you to understand how the system functions, and fails to function. We all grow up believing everyone gets equal justice under the law. All Rise for Civil Justice makes clear how the civil justice system is weighted in favor of people with money and power, and therefore fails regular people – and certainly low-income Americans – who are just trying to protect their safety, their homes, and their livelihoods.

For example, one would think that it would be very simple for victims of domestic violence to get an order of protection from their abuser. I mean, who is more deserving of justice than a victim of intimate partner violence? Sadly, though, that’s not the case. Legal help is needed to get a restraining order, and yet it’s not always available. And another example — we assume if you’re getting evicted you must not have paid your rent. I mean, why else would a landlord evict? But there are many reasons landlords can try and push tenants out. Without legal help, tenants – especially low-income tenants – are vulnerable to wrongful evictions that can completely upend their lives and send them spiraling into terrible situations through no fault of their own.

The civil justice system isn’t serving who it’s intended to serve. All Rise for Civil Justice will show not just how the civil justice system is in crisis, but also highlight solutions and stories of how the system can work as intended.

Say a little more about the storytelling component of this as it sounds like it’s going to be a primary area of focus.

We have tendency in the nonprofit sector to write up our client stories and success stories, pair them with one photograph, and then just tuck it into a printed annual report or maybe a static page on our website. In today’s world, we need to present these stories in a way that meets people where they are now – online, on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The information on the All Rise for Civil Justice site is shareable, with content, tools, and templates you can take right off the website. This includes visuals, videos, photo essays, and more.

And as I mentioned before, we want to highlight not just problems, but also solutions. This means developing online resources that can help individuals address problems they are facing. There are lots of ways technology can be leveraged to help people. Oftentimes you don’t necessarily need a lawyer, but you do need information. Many of the most creative and effective solutions are being developed in the civil legal aid sector.

How do you find these stories you are lifting up?

Voices for Civil Justice has a network of 1,500 legal aid advocates around the country. They work with us to develop and pitch media stories. We do a lot of media training with our partners to help them use the media to highlight the work they do. So, we have a great network of people we can turn to for stories.

To give one example, we are launching the site with a video story of a veteran who was in danger of losing his home to foreclosure and needed mental health support for PTSD. A medical-legal partnership in Los Angeles was able to connect him to all of the services he needed, and help him successfully apply for not just one, but all of the veterans benefits he was entitled to. Now he has a stable income, access to health care, and can stay in his home.

We also have a form on the new website that invites people to submit their own stories, so hopefully we can expand our reach around this.

Are there examples of this approach to leveraging media that you find particularly compelling?

As the Flint water crisis garnered national attention, we knew that legal aid lawyers were an important part of the solution for many families affected by lead, so we reached out to our network to see who was working on this issue. We worked with a law school clinician whose medical-legal partnership sought policy change at HUD to protect public housing residents from lead poisoning. Voices helped her draft and place an op-ed in the New York Times, with the headline “Blame HUD for America’s Lead Epidemic.” A few months later, HUD took the very action she sought. That was an example of media advocacy, supported by Voices for Civil Justice, making an enormous difference.

At Spotlight we’re focused on trying to fill these gaps in journalism around poverty and opportunity, especially in the light of the decline in local journalism. I assume this poses challenges for you as well?

People often don’t realize that the issues they already care deeply about – for example, domestic violence, health care, education, disability rights, eviction – have a civil legal component. Reporters, likewise, often don’t’ realize that there is a civil legal component to what they are reporting on. Often the most knowledgeable experts are legal aid attorneys with years of advocacy experience. Media is a powerful tool for filling those gaps. We find that reporters appreciate being introduced to good sources and fresh angles.  And, I think op-eds and letters to the editor are two of the best ways to educate readers as well.

Elizabeth Arledge is deputy director of Voices for Civil Justice

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