October marks Pro Bono Month, in which Alabama celebrates the difference made by pro bono lawyers throughout the state who serve our communities by providing free civil legal aid to those in need.
These volunteer lawyers–along with lawyers from Legal Services Alabama and clinics–help level the playing field and expand access to justice for low-income Alabamians.
For instance, in housing cases the deck is usually stacked against tenants.
While approximately 90% of landlords are able to hire a lawyer to represent them, only 10% of tenants have legal representation. This gives landlords an advantage over tenants who may have limited knowledge of the intricacies of the law, and therefore makes it more likely that the landlord will prevail in the case. On the other hand, tenants who are represented by counsel are much more likely to remain in their home in the face of eviction.
The lack of access to counsel–and especially civil legal aid–is not limited to just housing cases. Last year, more than 422,000 low income households experienced over 733,000 legal issues, including veterans seeking their benefits, workers at risk of having wages illegally garnished, and Alabamians facing domestic abuse. Yet due to Alabama’s lack of adequate funding and resources for this necessary service, approximately 84% of the civil legal needs of eligible Alabamians went unmet.
This dire lack of access to representation can be attributed to Alabama being only one of two states that fails to provide funding for civil legal services.
The need to fully fund these services is illustrated by the case of Bridgette Morrow, a low-income mother in Tuscaloosa.
From the time she first started renting the home in 2016, Ms. Morrow wanted for her family what all Alabamians want: safe and decent living conditions.
Instead, she found herself living in a house that lacked basic plumbing, with defective smoke detectors and faulty electrical wiring, among many other hazards.
Ms. Morrow, who lives below the poverty level, spent approximately $2,500 of her own money to install plumbing and subflooring. The landlord refused to address the other dangerous issues, so Ms. Morrow attempted to make the repairs on her own.
She also reported her landlord to authorities for his egregious violations of the law. As retaliation, he evicted her.
Ms. Morrow could not afford an attorney, so the Civil Law Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law, along with the pro bono support from the firm Winston & Strawn LLP helped her sue her former landlord to recover the money she had spent repairing his property.
A lower court ruled in favor of the landlord, who argued that her right to sue ended with her eviction – as though a person imminently facing homelessness due to eviction should be expected to file a lawsuit in the middle of desperately seeking shelter.
Morrow’s civil legal aid lawyers appealed her case. Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of upholding the rights of Ms. Morrow–and all tenants throughout the state–to hold their landlord accountable for their violations of the law.
In April 2018, the Court of Civil Appeals reversed the lower court and ruled that tenants like her can sue their landlord after the eviction process ends. This allowed Ms. Morrow to sue her landlord to recover for the funds and labor she put into trying to make the home safe.
Her civil legal aid lawyers stood by her side through the end, as they represented her until she finally recovered $5,000 from the landlord.
While Morrow was able to receive the legal representation she needed, this is seldom the case for low income Alabamians who face a legal issue.
Despite the vital needs faced by low income Alabamians, civil legal aid providers in Alabama rely primarily on federal funds to operate. An annual funding gap of approximately $36.6 million leaves the needs of almost 84% of low-income households unmet each year.
Civil legal aid is not only essential to Alabamians in need, it also provides substantial benefits to Alabama’s communities. As a recent study from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation found, of every $1 invested in Alabama civil legal aid services, the citizens of the state receive almost $12 in economic benefits. That is a Social Return on Investment of 1,195%, which means tens of millions of dollars in value added to Alabama communities.
The best way to honor the selfless work of pro bono lawyers and expand access to those services is for Alabama to start investing in civil legal aid to ensure all low-income residents have equal access to Alabama’s justice system.