I spent more than four years visiting Detroit’s 36th District Court, visiting with judges and lawyers and litigants. As people confront eviction, debt collections, and wage garnishments, they almost always do so without lawyers. The banks and landlords always have attorneys. This is not justice. As I write in this month’s American Prospect,
Detroit’s municipal meltdown may be extreme, but the lopsided justice of the 36th is the national norm. We have an adversarial system of justice in America, yet in the nation’s civil courts, we are one adversary short. In almost every case I witnessed in the four years I attended the 36th, the defendant stood alone in front of the judge. In a criminal case, if you can’t afford an attorney, the courts are required to provide you with one. In civil cases, litigants who can’t pay for a lawyer are on their own. In theory, they can turn to a legal-aid office, but those groups have never been able to keep up with demand. There are 134 federally funded legal-services groups around the country, and they turn away approximately one person for every one they can help.
“The current system is nonfunctional for all its participants. It’s not functioning for courts, for litigants, for the profession, for legal aid,” says Richard Zorza, a lawyer who for many years coordinated the Self Represented Litigation Network. “The system is built on the assumption that everyone has a lawyer and then fails to give it to them. It’s completely illogical.”
Read the whole piece here.