“And justice for all” is perhaps one of the most known phrases in American civics, but in practice it remains a very much a work in progress.
The recently released inaugural report of the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission—a collection of private attorneys, legal services providers, court personnel, and legislators dedicated to effecting systemic change and increasing equal access to justice by identifying and addressing impediments—is now helping to put some hard data in service to show where the promise of equal justice is in particular need of such work.
“This report is our first attempt to peel back the layers of these complex issues,” SCJAC executive director Hannah Honeycutt said during an online event announcing the report.
With data drawn from South Carolina Legal Services, the South Carolina Bar, and state and federal courts, the report found that 70 percent of low-income households will experience at least one civil legal problem every year. Ninety-two percent of defendants in cases of basic human need (eviction, foreclosure, and debt collection) navigate the system alone. In all adverse civil matters in state circuit courts, 98 percent of the first-named plaintiffs have legal representation, while just 28 percent of the first-named defendants do.
According to the report, released on Sept. 16, only a fraction of the more than 20 percent of South Carolinians who are potentially eligible for subsidized legal services receive them. In some cases, language and disability barriers are to blame. Some decline seeking legal counsel because of money concerns or mistrust of the system.
Others have no idea that they need a lawyer.
“Research finds that most people experiencing potentially life-altering civil legal problems never seek legal assistance because they do not recognize their problems as ‘legal’ or know that assistance may be available,” said commission member Elizabeth Chambliss, a law professor and director of the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough Center on Professionalism at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
But the biggest barrier is a supply and demand imbalance—there simply aren’t enough lawyers to go around. South Carolina Legal Aid is equipped to employ just one attorney per 21,000 eligible people, and private attorneys are also scarce, especially in less-populated areas.
“The limits on subsidized legal assistance and access to private attorney means the courts are just filled with unrepresented parties in the most common adverse civil matters,” Chambliss said.
Since 2018, Chambliss has worked on the report alongside Belser & Belser attorney Will Dillard, who said he believes that the in-depth resource is the only of its kind in the country. An interactive tool on the commission’s website provides a detailed, county-by-county analysis of which communities are most affected by specific legal issues.
“[It’s] a detailed breakdown across multiple years not only with the number of cases with unrepresented litigants going through the system, but also what county they’re in, what types of cases they have, and we’re able to look at that court data alongside other data,” Dillard said.
During the virtual event, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty spoke of his personal interest in accessing justice, encouraging more attorneys to become involved.
“The pandemic exacerbated an already existing problem,” Beatty said. “Eviction proceedings will resume, homelessness will continue, unemployment will always be present, and veterans will need assistance with access to benefits. I believe each one of us can make an impact … we must all work together.”
Commission Chairman Justice John C. Few said that he remembers the advice that New York University Law School professor and author Bryan Stevenson gave a group of law students several years ago: When they need to remember how to live their life as a lawyer, go back and re-read their law school admission essays.
“Why you decided to do this in the first place is the very thing that we are here talking about today,” Few said. “If we don’t know exactly what justice is, we certainly know what justice is not. When such large segments of our society cannot access the justice system that our society has set up, then we know that is not justice.”