by James Thompson

I work with a large number of working people in the community and one thing I hear about repeatedly is their lack of legal representation. Many people are under direct attack by the banks and financial institutions. These super-wealthy institutions are trying to glean every penny they can from poor and working people. This has been going on for a very long time, but intensified during the Bush administration and more recently during the economic crisis.
We have a limited social safety net in this country and the excesses of Wall Street and the banks point out that that needs to be changed. Social security benefits are woefully inadequate to meet the needs of poor people who are unable to work. These benefits need to be expanded. Medicare and Medicaid provide limited health coverage to the poor, aged and disabled and this coverage needs to be expanded. Health care should be a right and available to all who need it.
However, there is another service which is also essential to the well-being of the people. Legal services are crucial to the survival and stability of people and families in our modern culture.
Poor people have essentially no options in legal assistance when they find themselves embroiled in a legal struggle. Court appointed attorneys are available on a limited basis. Although I have known some outstanding court appointed attorneys who really care about their poor clients, for the most part these attorneys are poorly paid and this is reflected in their performance. In Russia there was an old joke “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” We have all heard the stories of court appointed attorneys sleeping in the courtroom as their clients are shipped off to death row.
It is no wonder that we have such a high rate of imprisonment and executions, particularly among poor people, African Americans and Latinos. Everyone recognizes that anyone imprisoned in this country faces a long, hard road for the rest of their lives just to survive since their employment options decrease. Of course, people who have been imprisoned are also vulnerable to super-exploitation by ruthless employers who seek to lower everyone’s wages in order to raise their profits.
What working people need is a broader, stronger safety net. This would include quality education for all, quality health care for all, decent retirement benefits for all and competent legal services for all. The whole judicial system needs a massive overall with strictly enforced regulations guaranteeing quality accessible legal services for everyone, not just the ultra-wealthy.
A system comparable to the Medicare system could be built to provide legal services. People could pay into the system and have legal insurance which would guarantee competent legal services when they are in need.
Such a system would help poor people fight the attacks by unscrupulous financial institutions as well as provide competent legal defense when they are unjustly charged with crimes they did not commit. Such a system would be a bulwark against foreclosures, assist with bankruptcies filed by poor people and protect families from unnecessary loss of their children to the state. Another mission of such a system could be helping working immigrants attain citizenship.
Our country just paid a trillion dollar tab for unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the billions in bailout money for banks and lending institutions. What about the people who paid the tax money squandered for such negative purposes? It is time for the people of this country to share in its great wealth. One way for that to happen is to expand the safety net. Legal services should be a right in a country who prides itself on the revolutionary concept that “all men (i.e., the people) are created equal.” “Equal before the law” should not just be an abstract concept, but should be reality.