Washington must recommit to justice for all

Rob McKenna served as Washington’s Attorney General from 2005-2013
Rob McKenna served as Washington’s Attorney General from 2005-2013

Every day, in schools across Washington, our kids pledge allegiance to the flag and to our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice for all. Our state shares this responsibility to ensure that the law’s protections are available to everyone.

Washington’s civil justice system, though, currently fails to provide justice for all. Access to the system to protect basic legal rights is too often available only to those who can afford the cost of hiring an attorney. In this legislative session, we have a chance to address that injustice by investing in civil legal aid.

Every year, thousands of our neighbors face their civil legal challenges alone, with no access to legal assistance, compromising the fundamental fairness in our justice system. According to the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study Update, more than 70 percent of low-income households are hit with one or more civil legal problems each year. Of those, three out of four don’t receive any legal assistance despite qualifying for services.

This basic inequity is why Washington’s leading businesses recognize the societal and economic benefits of investing in civil legal aid. General Counsels from 15 leading companies in Washington — including Microsoft, Alaska Airlines and Starbucks — encouraged the Legislature to increase the state’s investment in these services. In a letter to legislative leaders and budget writers dated February 15, 2017, these companies wrote, “Our society is grounded on the fair administration of justice under the rule of law. We believe it is unacceptable that so many of our fellow Washingtonians feel effectively shut out of our justice system.”

These are our neighbors and fellow citizens. They deal with legal threats to their homes, safety, livelihood, and families. A disabled veteran trying to complete paperwork to access earned benefits and medical care. A senior struggling to protect herself from a financial scammer. Or a survivor of domestic violence like “Valerie” desperately seeking to escape her abuser.

Last year, in a horrifying episode of violence, Valerie’s husband hit her four-year old son, forced the entire family into their car, and then drove recklessly around town until crashing into a building. Valerie knew she needed to protect her kids and herself, but could not afford legal help. Fortunately, Valerie found a civil legal aid attorney. Valerie obtained a divorce from her abuser and custody of her two children.

As attorney general, my office’s attorneys volunteered to assist hundreds of women like Valerie. We know how to help women like her. Research shows that providing an attorney can reduce the number of domestic violence victims by as much as 21 percent.

Investing in civil legal aid is smart government. For a modest amount of money, legal aid provides crucial help to thousands of people, and makes fiscal sense, too. According to studies from across the country, every dollar invested in civil legal aid can return anywhere from $2 to $9.

Yet, for the state, it should not just be about money, it’s about doing what’s right. Consider “Scott”.

Scott is an elderly, disabled veteran who would have lost his home if not for civil legal aid. A lien was placed on Scott’s property, and he was told that it would be paid through this property taxes. This was incorrect, and he quickly fell behind on payment of the lien. The bank then began the process of foreclosing on his home. Thankfully, a legal aid attorney helped Scott find a grant to pay off the lien and worked with the bank to stop the foreclosure. Civil legal aid saved this veteran from impending homelessness.

As Scott’s story shows, early legal interventions prevent more serious problems down the road. It’s like preventative health care. When legal aid is able to address problems early, it prevents problems from multiplying and intensifying.

Everybody benefits when our neighbors remain housed. Housing stabilizes families and enables them to remain self-sufficient, ultimately saving taxpayers money. The public costs of sheltering families that become homeless are significant, as are the increased costs of providing public assistance, transitional housing, and health care for families in crisis. Children’s lives are massively disrupted by homelessness, reducing their ability to learn in school and their overall well-being.

When I was attorney general, my colleagues and I fought for you every day, and I’m still fighting to see that your rights are protected. Today, I ask you to join me in the fight to assure that every person in Washington has equal access to justice.

Our lawmakers have a chance to help thousands of people in our state and restore Washington’s commitment to justice for all. This is our opportunity to encourage them to do it. Ask your legislators to take action now. Ask them to support increased funding for civil legal aid.

Rob McKenna served as Washington’s Attorney General from 2005-2013 and is a former co-chair of the Campaign for Equal Justice in Washington State.