Ellen Lawton, Joel Teitelbaum
December 2, 2015

In the U.S., individuals do not have the same right to legal representation under civil law as they do under both federal and state criminal law. And while the need for civil legal services is vast, the resources of the civil legal aid community are so limited that only one-in-five people living in poverty actually receives needed civil legal assistance.

In an effort to close this gap, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum in September establishing the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, the mandate of which is to “increase the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families and thereby improve the outcomes of an array of Federal programs.”

What the Presidential Memorandum shone light on is that a lack of access to civil legal aid isn’t just a problem associated with basic fairness and justice; it’s a problem for the health of individuals and communities. Research indicates that while only fifteen percent of preventable illness can be improved with access to quality medical care, fully sixty percent of our health is determined by social and environmental factors related to where we live, work, and play.

“Equal access to justice helps individuals and families receive health services, housing, education, and employment [and] enhances family stability and public safety…Equal access to justice also advances the missions of an array of Federal programs, particularly those designed to lift Americans out of poverty or to keep them securely in the middle class. But gaps in the availability of legal aid for America’s poor and middle class threaten to undermine the promise of justice for all…Federal programs that are designed to help the most vulnerable and underserved among us may more readily achieve their goals if they include legal aid among the range of services they provide.”

Presidential Memorandum Draws Link Between Civil Legal Aid and Social Conditions of Health
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