Individuals facing criminal charges are entitled to legal representation even if they are unable to afford attorneys. But what about people facing civil issues like divorce, child custody and medical claims?
There are services that provide legal counsel, such as Legal Aid of North Carolina. In 2010, Ashley Quiñones became a client of Legal Aid after Medicaid her denied a kidney transplant as she was experiencing renal failure. Quiñoneschose to appeal the claim and she turned to Legal Aid for help.
“Not only was it my best option, but at that point, because of the level of disease and my income, it was my only option,” said Quiñones in an interview on The State of Things.
Legal Aid of North Carolina helped her navigate the appeals process. Ultimately, Medicaid dropped the denial and paid for Quiñones’ transplant surgery. But while Legal Aid was able to assist Quiñones, they are unable to meet the demand from other individuals for their services.
“In North Carolina, there are over two million citizens now who are probably eligible for Legal Aid’s services. Legal Aid has 122 lawyers stretched over 20 offices across the state. That’s obviously a very low amount of coverage that’s available so they have to prioritize,” said Charles Holton, chair of the board of directors for Legal Aid of North Carolina and a practicing attorney at Womble Carlyle.
An estimated eighty-percent of low-income North Carolinians who seek Legal Aid of North Carolina’s services are turned away, according to the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. In 2011, federal budget cuts forced Legal Aid of North Carolina to close four facilities and lay off 30 lawyers.
“We (in America) simply operate a legal system that goes under the working assumption that very high percentages of folks will be priced out of its use… It is inconsistent with the equal justice that we profess with the dedication to liberty and justice for all,” said Gene Nichol, distinguished professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at University of North Carolina School of Law.
According to Nichol, access to Legal Aid is often the deciding factor in civil cases involving home foreclosure, unemployment, and medical claims. People who are turned away have no alternatives for seeking legal counsel.