Forty states cut their court budgets last year. Some even began to close their courthouses altogether for several days each month – “rolling blackouts” on access to justice. Others eliminated programs designed to help the growing number who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. But those cuts will ultimately cost the courts money because they make them less efficient: Instead of a clerk explaining basic terms and how the process works, now a judge has to.
According to a study by the ABA Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System, 88 percent of lawyers and judges believe the middle class are at risk of being driven out of the courts altogether. We believe this is already happening. In fact, according to the World Justice Project's 2010 Rule of Law Index, which ranked the 11 wealthiest nations by how well they provided access to civil justice, the United States came in last.
Legislators must be reminded that the rule of law and access to the courts are fundamental to our democracy. Indeed, laws and rights are meaningless without the means to enforce them and take on even greater value in a recession. We often criticize the courts for serving unrepresented litigants poorly, but an imperfect system is clearly better than none at all. It’s time to turn the courthouse lights back on.