Robert J. Woods, executive director of the United Way of York County, welcomed everyone in attendance to the first York County Legal Services Summit.
By way of background, in 2012, Mr. Woods co-chaired, with Judge John C. Uhler, a Legal Services Task Force whose purpose was to create a holistic, sustainable plan to increase access to civil legal services for low-income residents of York County.
Woods noted "today, there are only four staff attorneys dedicated to serving an eligible population of 50,000 residents. This is a ratio of one attorney for every 12,500 residents compared to the remainder of the population which has a ratio of one attorney for every 768 residents. One really has to question the final words of the Pledge of Allegiance, which states "...and justice for all."
Since the Legal Services Task Force Report was published in April 2013, there has been much work to bring the community together to address the issue of the lack of legal representation and services available to those unable to afford services.
Taking the recommendations of the Task Force and the results of a recent economic impact study, the York County Bar Association and Foundation have put some strategies into action and are developing additional plans to address the gaps.
The plans involve three key areas. First, to ensure efficient and quality services. Second, to increase community awareness of the services available. And, third, to develop sustainable funding of the services.
Mr. Woods thanked everyone for their participation in the summit.
President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh stated during his introduction, "Unless every American citizen has equal access to justice, the phrase "justice for all" means nothing."
Noting the lack of availability of civil legal representation impacts everyone in York County, Judge Linebaugh went on to state, "York County’s network for civil legal help has eroded to the crisis point, while critical needs have increased. State funding is half of what it was in 1996; other funding sources have dwindled."
To quantify the cost of the problem, an economic impact study of Bar-funded civil legal service programs was commissioned by the Bar. The results of that study show that in 2013, a total of $1.1 million invested in York County-based civil legal services from all sources yielded $9.9 million in income and savings – a nine-fold return.
For every $100,000 invested, another 120 families are served, generating an additional $900,000 in economic benefits.
The bottom line is that civil legal services in York County return $9 for each $1 invested by enabling access to the civil justice system for people who lack the means to hire a lawyer.
According to Judge Linebaugh. "In a society based on law, justice is available only to those who can make the legal system work for them. A right is not a right unless it can be enforced; a remedy is not a remedy if it is available only in theory. For the poor, who lack the economic resources to hire a lawyer, justice historically has often been difficult or impossible to achieve. Lack of economic resources as well as dependence on public institutions and programs create a magnitude of legal problems for the poor that have been difficult to resolve."
In closing, we are grateful for the public and private partners who have expressed interest in joining us to create permanent, sustainable change to improve the access to and the administration of justice in York County.