This column appeared on Wednesday, April 6 in the Portsmouth Herald and online at seacoastonline.com
At the 75th anniversary of the New York legal Aid Society in 1951, the legendary Federal Judge Billings Learned Hand spoke about the importance of legal representation for all. “It is the daily; it is the small; it is the cumulative injuries of little people that we are here to protect,” said Hand, a Harvard graduate and one of the most quoted and cited judges in American history. “If we are able to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.”
The words of Judge Hand echo through the generations and are no less vital today than they were when he spoke 65 years ago. While there is no shortage of witty lawyer jokes, it is no laughing matter when millions of Americans have little-to-no access to “equal justice for all”.
Barely 10 percent of our Granite State citizens are getting the legal assistance they deserve due to a lack of resources. Given that both financial literacy and robust civics education have been on the decline for decades, many are intimidated by the legal system or are unaware of the legal resources that may be available to them. Those who do seek civil legal aid find agencies with strained resources and staff numbers lower than ever. Despite the herculean efforts by New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) and the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC), too many go wanting. These organizations strengthen our democracy daily by providing access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. For many, “equal representation under the law” has become a mirage. Organizations like NHLA, LARC and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) work to provide equal access to justice that all Americans deserve.
Take Horace, for example. Horace graduated from basic training with the military on his 18th birthday. During his time with the Guard, he suffered a back injury that left him with herniated disks, unable to lift much weight, or stand or sit for extended periods of time. It effectively ended his career in construction and trucking.
But when Horace applied for disability benefits, he was denied. He turned to food stamps, and even then, he struggled. He was especially heartbroken when he realized he wouldn’t be able to buy his granddaughter a gift for her 5th birthday. An NHLA advocate worked with Horace to secure his benefits. He’s off food stamps, now. He can pay his rent, buy his groceries and pay for utilities. He feels like a full member of his community again.
Without legal help, Horace might not have been able to navigate the complex bureaucracy of appealing his benefits denial. He might still be relying on food stamps and barely getting by.
I am not a lawyer, but I know that the quality of justice should not depend on how much money someone has.
But public funding for NHLA and LARC has declined by about 50 percent during the past six years – from approximately $1.62 million in 2009 to an estimated $800,000 in 2015 as federal and state resources became scarce.
Since 2000, The Campaign for Legal Services has worked to increase private legal aid support in New Hampshire. Civil legal aid serves an estimated 14,000 New Hampshire residents annually, and addresses an all-too-human range of critical needs: veterans like Horace navigating bureaucratic systems to secure earned benefits; people with disabilities working to obtain health care; victims seeking safety from domestic abuse; seniors needing protection from financial exploitation; and families fighting to keep safe housing.
Civil legal aid impacts everyone, directly and indirectly. It has been proven that those who benefit from legal aid become steady and reliable customers of health care, utilities, and other consumer goods and services, thus enabling local businesses to stabilize and build their customer base. As the recent Economic Impact Study demonstrated, New Hampshire’s legal aid programs generate as much as $82 million in additional economic activity in New Hampshire each year. These programs also save money for social service agencies and taxpayers by decreasing homelessness, domestic violence, and emergency health care.
The need has never been greater. In 2014, more than 86,000 individuals used the LARC web site to access self-help guides to the legal system. The organization also received more than 300 calls daily on its legal hotline. In addition, the NHLA served more than 5,600 clients in 2014, of which 70 percent were women and children and 10 percent were veterans. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
The 2015 Campaign for Legal Services raised approximately $250,000 from more than 600 donors. The 2016 Campaign has set an ambitious fundraising goal of $275,000. Led by Campaign Chair Jack Sanders, Jr., volunteer leaders serving on the Campaign Leadership Council together with NHLA and LARC are working hard to raise more funds for legal aid.
There is no doubt about this fact: private financial support from individuals, the bar, and New Hampshire businesses provide critical legal help for the most vulnerable in our state. Please help us change lives and strengthen aspirations for everyone to achieve at least a slice of the American dream.
Criminal defendants have representation and are provided recourse via a public defender. Who will represent our family or the rest of us if something goes wrong?
Secure, tax-deductible donations can be made online at www.nh-cls.org. For more information about the Campaign or to discuss planned giving, call 603-369-6650. Thank you.
Contributions can also be mailed to: Campaign for Legal Services, 117 North State Street, Concord, New Hampshire, 03301
Tom Sedoric of Rye is a wealth manager and fiduciary and is a private supporter of The Campaign for Legal Services.