Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Socialized Lawyering?

Via this post from Gideon, there are a couple of interesting posts dealing with the question of universal legal services. We're on the verge of some form of universal health care (hopefully), so why not legal services? It's an interesting idea.

First, over at Simple Justice deals with the civil side of the equation. Scott points out that:

As society has increasingly looked to the law to resolve its problems, and made every facet of life increasingly complex from a legal standpoint, the need for legal advice and representation to navigate life has increased significantly.

Let's face facts, one can't deal with a broken vacuum cleaner without understanding the warranty terms, maintenance requirements, terms of sale, etc. The cute TV commercials about how every company loves you may draw you in, but when you have a problem (as happens to all of us on a regular basis), you need a lawyer. On a more significant scale, how many subprime borrowers now in default say that they had no lawyer when they closed a deal that any competent lawyer would have told them was insane.
That being the case, there's a good swath of the public that can't afford to acquire regular legal services, but are not poor enough to qualify for legal aid (or have problems that legal aid is precluded from dealing with). We're already moving towards a system similar to what exists in medical care now, with legal insurance plans gaining in popularity. But as the medical insurance problems show, that's not necessarily a long term solution.

Second, over at Norm Pattis's new blog, he takes up the issue of the state providing an attorney for anyone charged with an offense serious enough to warrant prison time. There's a certain symmetry to that idea:
I fail to see why the same state that elects to bring charges does not offer to foot the bill for the defense. Liberty is at issue. The state is perhaps that most amazing of all human artifacts. It is created to assure life, liberty and happiness. To serve these noble ends it is sometimes set loose on individual citizens, empowered to take everything from them, even their very lives.

Yet the state errs. Innocent men and women are charged with crimes; folks who have committed crimes are often overcharged or charged with crimes they did not commit. Why should the cost of this be borne by private individuals?
Norm recognizes a similar gap in the criminal justice system, in which those who don't qualify for a PD similarly don't have the resources to hire effective private counsel.

Would providing lawyers to anyone who needed them in either situation be a viable option? It's hard to say. We obviously do it already, to a certain extent, with PDs and legal aid. But the funds expended on those organizations are small and almost constantly under attack. Expanding either one, particularly in the criminal arena, wouldn't be politically popular.

Of course, what's made the march towards universal healthcare more urgent is than it has been in a while I think is that there's a large group of respectable middle class people - employed child raisers who are doing all they should in the world - who fear (rightly or wrongly) being wiped into poverty by a single medical crisis. Any movement on universal legal services will only come when those same folks feel the same way about their legal affairs.

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