November 12, 2015
Under the headline “More Equal Justice: A Campaign for Legal Help in N.H.,” the Valley News endorsed the Campaign for Legal Services this morning as a potential solution to injustice in our civil legal system. We are grateful to our supporters Gordon MacDonald, a partner at Nixon Peabody and member of our Campaign Leadership Council, and Barbara Couch, former Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Hypertherm, for telling the editors of the Valley News the many ways legal services helps individuals and communities across New Hampshire.
The right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment is a mighty pillar of American justice. But it supports only the criminal side of the legal edifice. No comparable right to legal representation exists on the civil side, where so many matters vital to the well-being of individuals and families play out. As a result, people who can’t afford a private attorney often are unable to secure justice or protect their rights — unless they are fortunate enough to receive legal aid services.
How acute is the problem? A 2013 study by the New Hampshire Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission offered this startling picture: It estimated that of the 250,000 Granite State residents who were income-eligible for legal aid in 2010, nearly 150,000 experienced a legal problem. “Yet existing legal services were able to address only 8,403” of them, it reported. By 2014, that number had risen to about 14,000, but that still represents less than 10 percent of the estimated need.
Women, people with disabilities and senior citizens are particularly at risk for certain kinds of legal problems, the commission reported. The most pressing needs are for representation in matters such as family, housing and consumer law; domestic violence; and public benefits.
That so few of these needs are being met is not because the existing legal-aid entities are staffed with slackers, but because they are perpetually overwhelmed by the demand for services while being starved by the state and federal governments of the financial resources that would allow them to serve more of the people who require assistance.
Enter something called the New Hampshire Campaign for Legal Services, a nonprofit that is seeking to raise $350,000 by the end of the year to supplement the resources available to the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC) and New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA). LARC operates almost entirely by offering legal counsel and advice over the phone; NHLA provides direct representation in court or at an administrative hearing in 25 percent of its cases, but the majority of its services involve providing to its clients counsel and advice, legal information or a referral of some kind. (The third leg of legal assistance in New Hampshire is the Bar Association’s Pro Bono Referral Program.)
Representatives of the Campaign for Legal Services visited the Valley News last week to make their case for support. One was Gordon MacDonald, a partner in the Manchester office of Nixon, Peabody, who spoke movingly of his first experience representing pro bono a domestic violence victim seeking a protective order and his deep satisfaction in helping her to get one. In fact, women who seek protective orders without legal representation succeed only about 32 percent of the time; with a lawyer, that jumps to more than 80 percent, national studies indicate. And protective orders have been shown to be a significant factor in reducing rates of domestic violence.
That such legal intervention benefits society as well as individuals was attested to by Barbara Couch, former vice president of corporate social responsibility at Hypertherm, who was responsible for developing the company’s nationally recognized programs focusing on the development and well-being of its employees. She said she had seen firsthand how domestic turmoil and time lost as a result of it take a toll on business and the broader economy as well as the individual; the same goes for home foreclosures and other types of disruptions.
Legal representation helps level the playing field in a multitude of situations in which people lacking financial resources find themselves at odds with powerful individuals and bureaucracies. Anyone committed to the notion of equality before the law ought to at least consider helping the Campaign for Legal Services (www.nh-cls.org) meet its fundraising goal.