New models are needed to fund indigent civil defense. While the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to counsel when you’re arrested for a crime, there is no similar guarantee when you’re sued. You can be wrongfully impoverished by court order simply because you can’t afford a lawyer, and these days, there’s a slippery slope between poverty and imprisonment.
Nearly every state provides some level of funding for legal aid programs to help the least wealthy defend themselves in court, and many law firms encourage their lawyers to volunteer a few hours a month. But you won’t find an agency or law firm anywhere that claims the demand for indigent defense has been met. The explosion in pro se litigation over the last decade suggests the demand is large and growing.
Florida was one of the first states to fund legal aid programs through the interest earned on client funds held in lawyer trust accounts. As interest rates plummeted, legal aid funding fell nearly 90% over the last five years. Earlier this year, former Florida Supreme Court justice Raoul Cantero and over 500 other lawyers asked the court to let the Florida Bar increase its annual dues by up to $100 to help close the gap.
The primary opposition? The Florida Bar, which believes society at large should bear the cost of indigent legal defense, not the profession.
I feel little sympathy for the Bar’s “poor me” rationale, but I agree lawyers shouldn’t bear the cost. There’s a better idea. Why not add a little to the cost of filing a lawsuit, especially for corporations that clog the courts with numerous cases? Some companies use the courts as debt collectors. They view civil litigation as a regular cost of doing business. Let’s impose the added fee on the 10th or 15th case filed by any one party in any 12-month period. Make those plaintiffs who abuse the system fund lawyers for poor defendants.