I settled into a chair not far from the podium in the courtroom with my client’s case file in hand. The judge was preparing to enter any minute, and upon his entering, we would hear, “All rise!” I scanned the growing crowd, and it was immediately clear that the number of cases on the morning docket far exceeded the seating capacity in the courtroom. The crowd spilled outside the room, and people were beginning to line up in the hallway. Looking at their faces, I wondered how many were coming to court without an attorney because they did not have the means to hire one. How many had no idea what was going to happen next? Were they anxious? Scared?
The questions were rhetorical because I had litigated cases in this type of court and volunteered at a local Christian legal aid ministry. The answers, I knew, were clear. A vast majority was unrepresented due to inability to pay for a lawyer. As the judge entered and took his seat, the court clerk began to call the names of the cases. So many people were standing outside that names had to be repeated into the hall. The Lord reminded me in those moments that the need is great. Each of these litigants mattered to God; therefore, they should matter to me.
Our country is blessed to be governed by the rule of law, and thankfully, we have certain Constitutional rights we enjoy as American citizens. One of those is the right to an attorney to represent you if you have been charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire counsel. These lawyers are called public defenders, and their work is critical to our system of democratic government. However, the scene I described above involved a docket call of civil cases. These men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters had been sued by another party; they had not been charged with a crime. Their cases involved landlord and tenant disputes, breaches of contracts, evictions, and unpaid debts, to name a few. Except in very limited types of cases, no right to an attorney exists in a civil case. The scene described above repeats itself daily in courtrooms across the country, which means many of our neighbors have great needs that are going unmet.
A Justice Gap Report, prepared by the Legal Services Corporation in 2017, found that in the past year, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. In addition, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year, including problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence.
We have been given an opportunity to demonstrate the gospel of Christ by helping others receive justice before the law.
The Legal Services Corporation funds legal aid societies and offices across the country, and these providers work hard, and do well, to meet the civil legal needs of those unable to afford an attorney; however, the need far exceeds the assistance available. Acknowledging and responding to this need should certainly not rest solely on the government. Christ-followers have a responsibility to respond in Jesus’ name. We have been given an opportunity to demonstrate the gospel of Christ by helping others receive justice before the law.
Jesus met needs. He fed the hungry and gave sight to the blind. He opened the ears of the deaf and healed the sick. He freed the afflicted and comforted the hurting. He raised the dead. In Matthew 25:31–40, Jesus explained that his followers would be known by the love of their actions. He so identifies with the vulnerable that he said, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (v. 40).
How can you and your church get involved?
First, recognize the need and pray for wisdom as to how the Lord would have you respond in your specific community. Is there a need for immigration law help? Are housing problems a concern? Are predatory lenders keeping those in your community in poverty?
Second, you can discuss the need for gospel justice with your pastor and church leadership. Scripture is filled with God’s heart for the poor.
Third, you can explore becoming a justice center where volunteer attorneys meet needs in Jesus’ name. Resources are available. There is a movement happening across the country where gospel justice centers are working to help in Jesus’ name. The needs are great. Will you help?