New Justice Gap Study Confirms Problem Persists

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The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) released a far-reaching new report on the crisis in civil legal aid, The Justice Gap: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, in April 2022.

This is LSC’s fourth Justice Gap study that documents the volume of civil legal needs faced by low-income Americans, assesses the extent to which they seek and receive help, and measures the shortfall between their civil legal needs and the resources available to address these needs. The deficit between resources and need is called the “justice gap.” This data on the justice gap prompted the Improving Access to Civil Legal Justice partnership between WebJunction and LSC in 2017, which aimed to help equip library staff to provide civil legal information to patrons, increasing access to justice for all. This partnership has resulted in the Creating Pathways to Civil Legal Justice series of courses designed for library staff to develop their skills in this area.

The new study from LSC reveals that the justice gap is vast. Low-income Americans received no or inadequate legal help for a staggering 92% of all the civil legal problems that impacted them substantially.

These problems are widespread, with 74% of low-income households experiencing at least one civil legal problem in the past year, and 39% experiencing five or more. The most common types of civil legal problems low-income individuals and families face involve health care, housing, consumer issues and income maintenance. More than half of those who experienced a problem say it substantially impacted their life—with consequences affecting their finances, mental health, physical health and safety, and relationships.

In 2021, low-income individuals brought an estimated 1.9 million problems to LSC-funded legal aid organizations. LSC grantees were unable to provide any or enough legal help for an estimated 1.4 million of those problems. Previous surveys reveal that this “turn away” rate has not improved since the first Justice Gap Study in 2005.  
“LSC’s Justice Gap Study serves to shine a bright light on the systemic failures that lead to injustice for millions of low-income Americans who cannot access legal assistance,” says LSC President Ron Flagg. “We must not let the overwhelming magnitude of these startling statistics obscure the personally devastating impact of the justice gap on the individual lives of our neighbors. The justice gap means, every day, our neighbors lose their homes unjustly, are subject to domestic violence without protection, or are denied their veterans benefits—the consequences of facing legal problems without legal assistance are acute and unnecessary.” 
The new study offers insights into the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on low-income Americans. One third of low-income Americans personally experienced at least one civil legal problem related to the pandemic in the past year, compared to 18% of those at or above 400% of the federal poverty level. The types of civil legal problems most likely to be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic are those involving income maintenance, education and housing. WebJunction partnered with LSC in 2021 to develop a set of eviction resources for library staff to assist patrons with housing related questions.

Libraries can play a significant role in helping to close the justice gap in their communities by serving as a familiar, reliable access point for information. Library staff can use their reference skills build partnerships with legal aid services, law libraries, and other organizations working to close the justice gap to help connect people in need of civil legal help with relevant information and resources. “This study confirms the continued need for more access points for civil legal information,” Flagg states. “Libraries are broadly accessible to all people. We want to create ways for library users to find assistance in their communities. By empowering our public libraries to partner with LSC and undertake training we can directly address this problem and decrease the justice gap.”

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