Op-Ed

To guarantee justice for all, fund legal aid for the poor

Angones
Angones

Some years ago, I was asked to consider the rights of a young mother of four or five children who lacked the ability to speak. She had just delivered another child, and the state and the hospital wanted to tie her tubes.

They had sought to have her declared incompetent, since she could not speak, and wasn’t responding to them for a time. First, a panel including an attorney, a psychiatrist and a social worker had to approve. I went to the mother’s home. The family was very, very poor, but there was a loving long-term boyfriend who looked after the children, he fed them by fishing in the Miami River. The mother clearly took care of those children, and nobody would love them more than she did. So I did not agree.

Later, when her oldest son was truant and found shoplifting at a drug store, a social service agency called me to see if I could help. The state was going to take all of her children away from her. In court, I told the judge about the situation. The judge concluded I knew more about the family than anyone else in the room. We arranged for social services supervision, and it was a good outcome for the family. Every couple of years, the agency let me know that the kids were doing fine. That was a good feeling, and a good result. Children belong with their parents.

The U.S. Constitution is an admirable document. It has stood the test of time, in part because it protects the interests of vulnerable people like that mother. Besides life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Constitution safeguards the right to justice.

As a society, we provide legal counsel in criminal justice cases should you be accused of a crime. But that right is not so well protected for civil cases. An estimated 80 percent or more of people who need civil legal assistance in the United States go without, because they cannot afford it. Though they try to represent their own interests, frequently they find the system too complex to navigate on their own.

Civil legal aid has provided that safety net in the past, but it is a safety net that is growing thinner by the day. Investing in civil legal aid does more than benefit vulnerable families and individuals. A new study commissioned by The Florida Bar Foundation makes it clear that spending on civil legal aid benefits all of us by helping stabilize families and communities, increasing employment and helping small businesses.

In 2015, each $1 of civil legal aid funding resulted in over $7 of impacts in Florida, according to the study, conducted by The Resource for Great Programs. Every $100,000 of funding enabled legal aid organizations to generate an additional $719,000 in economic benefits.

Legal aid can help families in many ways. They can recover past-due child support; qualify for Social Security and healthcare benefits; avoid foreclosures and evictions and stabilize housing situations, relationships and jobs. In 2015, the positive ripple effects helped create an estimated 2,243 new jobs for local communities and $600 million in economic impacts statewide. When you do the right thing, you never know how it will grow.

In Florida, unfortunately, funding for civil legal assistance is at a 10-year low because, in part, to a funding mechanism that is sensitive to fluctuating interest rates, which have been extremely low, near zero. Other sources of support are needed, including philanthropy and additional pro-bono work by attorneys.

Florida’s imbalance in access to civil justice should be of concern to everyone, regardless of party or political persuasion. Because a system of justice available only to the wealthy is a system that is vulnerable. I know this on a very personal level.

I was just 9 years old and living in Cuba when Fidel Castro forced out the dictator Fulgencio Batista. The chaos that followed so frightened and worried my parents, a lawyer and a schoolteacher, that they made the anguished decision to send me alone to Miami, with no certainty of when or if we would ever reunite.

It was just a month before my 11th birthday when I arrived here through the Pedro Pan initiative. Fortunately, my parents managed to join me a few months later. But the revolution cost them everything they had built in Cuba. I thrived in school here and eventually enrolled at the University of Miami, where I earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy of political systems and history, concentrating on revolutions, especially those of America, France, Mexico and Cuba. I learned that these revolutions did not occur in a vacuum. When people are abused and feel they have no rights, it is not long before they take action. That is the cause of almost every revolution.

The freedom we enjoy here is protected by the Constitution, but it also depends upon the dedication of the people. Ensuring our system of justice is fair and accessible to all — especially the weak, poor and vulnerable — strengthens democracy and is worthy of greater investment.

Francisco Angones is a senior partner with the law offices of Angones, McClure & Garcia. He was president of the Florida Bar from 2007 to 2008.

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