Is there a Justice Gap in the US Legal System?

When I founded AnyLaw, I thought, there is a segment of the professional legal community out there that cannot afford to pay for legal research. By offering a free legal research service, we could help those people. As I developed the business and immersed myself further in the industry, I became aware of the growing Justice Gap facing people today in the US. I wanted to learn more and get involved to see how we could help. 

First, I needed to understand what exactly is this justice gap and who does it affect? Here’s what I learned along the way…

For most people facing legal issues in the US, legal counsel is essential. Yet, today, a growing number of Americans face financial and social barriers that restrict access to legal counsel and representation. Nearly any individual or group can be disproportionately impacted by issues in the American legal system. The gap between the need for legal resources, and the availability of those resources, is widespread and can be seen in both civil and criminal law.

Civil Law

When it comes to civil law, the average citizen may not even understand when their civil rights are being violated. If they do not have access to legal counsel, the situation can spiral down quickly and painfully. Even in situations when a person is aware of their rights, they will most likely need some advice or assistance from a professional who is experienced in the justice system. But not everyone knows where to go to find these legal professionals, nor does everyone have the ability to pay when they find what they are looking for.  

For obvious reasons, this affects disadvantaged communities the most. Ironically, it’s substantially cheaper for communities to fund legal resources and bridge the justice gap than it is to respond outside the legal system. For example, the cost of providing shelters for homeless individuals and families far outweighs the cost of providing public legal counsel to reduce evictions. Yet, it is easier said than done. The result is a growing number of litigants literally lost in the complicated civil legal system.

Criminal Law

Criminal law is a whole different animal. With higher levels of poverty comes a lower chance for someone to have the ability to pay for legal representation. As a result, it is almost impossible for people with lower income and education to participate in the justice system on equal footing and take advantage of their rights and entitlements under the law.

Sure, the Bill of Rights guarantees every citizen the right to legal representation in criminal matters, but the reality is that there are just not enough “community resources” readily available to keep a level playing field. Many defendants charged with violent crimes cannot afford to hire a private lawyer. And while the US public defender system is one of the best in the world, the system is overtaxed and understaffed. 

This resulting imbalance is the justice gap.

So, what is the solution?

Non-profits have emerged to expand access to legal resources and mitigate the effects of the justice gap. One example is the Legal Services Corporation. LSC helps Americans within lower income thresholds in a variety of contexts, and while it continues to provide critical support to vulnerable communities, it can only offer assistance to the most disadvantaged. A growing number of players have entered the fray and are taking a stand. Pew Charitable Trust and companies like Microsoft are leading the way in the Access to Justice initiative to level the playing field. In addition, numerous legal startups have emerged, creating tools to help kill the dragon and save the princess. 

At the end of the day, it is clear to me that no single organization or business can fix the justice gap on its own. Non-profits, courts, legal tech solutions, legislatures, and a wide range of additional actors have important roles to play in the future of legal fairness.

As a brand, AnyLaw is focused on making our primary legal content, also known as precedential US case law, freely and readily available to everyone. We believe that this is a critical component for individuals seeking to navigate the court system themselves. 

AnyLaw was founded to be free to anyone, anytime, anywhere and we will continue to do what we can to help as we develop our pipeline of other tools and features to help bridge the justice gap.