If, for instance, you are wrongfully evicted from your home and need to appeal; or if you suffer a medical emergency and need to declare bankruptcy; if you are in an abusive relationship and need a restraining order; if you are being unfairly sued by a debt collector and need to fight back, you can only do so if you can afford to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in legal fees. And four out of every five low-income Americans cannot.
It’s madness: Our country has designed its system of poverty law in such a way that you can only access your rights if you can pay a fee. This defies not just decency but common sense, because if you’re facing bankruptcy, eviction or debt collection you are, by definition, probably not going to be able to afford a lawyer.
Now, it’s our turn to build on that progress — and with much of the aid that has helped Americans make it through the pandemic set to expire, we have no time to wait.
In addition to boosting funding for legal aid, we can also change the system so more people can get the advocates they need — and even advocate for themselves.
That means exploring training nonprofit professionals to shepherd low-income families through the system when dealing with the kind of legal challenges you don’t need a specialized degree to navigate — just as nurse practitioners fill in when doctors aren’t necessary. And it means simplifying the forms, processes and court proceedings that make up our legal system, giving more Americans agency to access their rights on their own whenever possible.
That’s what Upsolve, a nonprofit that Rohan launched in 2016 to empower families to file bankruptcy for free and relieve their debt on their own, has made possible for over 7,000 Americans. These are folks like Danielle Venus, who had no way to climb out from under $55,000 in emergency medical bills from a near-fatal car accident, even working three jobs. Using a streamlined web app, she was able to access her bankruptcy protections and return to her life, debt-free.
But we also know she is the exception, not the rule. All across America, millions of people living in poverty are unable to avoid unimaginable suffering — the loss of a house, a violent marriage, an empty fridge — because the legal system is built to keep them out.
That’s why we need a new civil right in this country: the right to access your rights, regardless of how much money you have in your bank account. Because the promise of America is that we are all equal under the law. And that should hold true, whether you can afford a lawyer or not.