All Americans have the right to an attorney when charged with a crime. But what about the right to an attorney when confronted with complex legal issues that are civil in nature, a situation more and more families face in these turbulent economic times? Last Friday, the Department of Justice addressed this very real concern. According to the Legal Times, the DOJ announced three initiatives to give American military veterans, lower-income families, and those facing foreclosure on their homes better access to legal advice and representation. This is welcome news to those of us who believe all Americans should have access to legal counsel and advice, regardless of their ability to pay.
The announcement was made by Laurence Tribe, the highly regarded Harvard Law professor who has led the DOJ’s “Access to Justice Initiative” since February, but who is stepping down next month to return to his Harvard post. According to Tribe, the initiatives include a toll-free number to an ABA referral service to help resolve the most complex complaints about wages and benefits, such as workers being denied family medical leave or overtime pay. In most instances, these private-sector attorneys will work on contingency-fee bases. A second initiative involves an interactive web site that, among other things, connects veterans and their families with lawyers near them to help with the litany of legal issues veterans face, including foreclosure, consumer fraud and employment issues. The final initiative focuses in promoting foreclosure mediation programs to keep struggling families from losing their homes.
As Tribe said at his news conference, he knows these steps aren’t going to transform the national landscape. While that may be true, the longest journey begins with a small step forward.