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Liberty And Justice For Some: State Budget Cuts Imperil Americans' Access To Courts


First Posted: 08/02/11 09:39 AM ET Updated: 10/02/11 06:12 AM ET

Without the assistance of legal aid, according to Glinzman, courts will see the problem of people coming in without representation compounded.

"What happens when we get cut is more people go in [to the courts] without any assistance or advice or representation at all, which means that they most likely end up in the worst situation -- losing their home and all the negative consequences of answering the questions wrong or not having the information," he said. "People can walk away, lose their house and still have tax consequences 20 years down the road. There's more of that because there's less of us to go and assist them."

Foreclosures are a major reason for the uptick in people seeking help from legal aid and the court system. But the recession has also led to an increase in the number of domestic violence and employment cases.

Melanie Shakarian, attorney and director of development at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Ohio, said her organization gets about $2 million a year from LSC. The number of incoming domestic violence cases has doubled in the last three years.

"Often when there is a bad economy, domestic violence has increased and our intake of domestic violence cases has doubled," said Shakarian. "We're also at the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis here in Northeast Ohio. ... About 25 percent of our cases last year were foreclosures. Our intakes of those have gone through the roof in the last three years, and we anticipate the number of landlord-tenant [disputes] will increase."

Silvia Argueta, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, is seeing the same trends.

She is worried that steep cuts to legal aid will undermine the basics of American democracy, in which every person is entitled to access to justice.

"The founding fathers really looked to equal access to justice," she said. "Legal aid has been the bellwether for that. ... It's a fundamental constitutional protection to ensure that you have a civil society, that you have those individuals who are able to access the court and the system, and legal aid has traditionally provided that."

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