Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Gap Between Legal Needs and Services Leaves Most-Vulnerable Populations at Greatest Risk and Must Be Addressed, Says New CAP Assessment
Press Release

RELEASE: Gap Between Legal Needs and Services Leaves Most-Vulnerable Populations at Greatest Risk and Must Be Addressed, Says New CAP Assessment

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress published an issue brief that looks at the implications associated with the justice gap—the gap between legal needs and legal services—in America and why the progressive community should care about the problem.

In “Making Justice Equal,” CAP expert Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza argues that the nation’s most vulnerable populations—women; immigrants; the elderly; people with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people—are most likely to be negatively affected by the justice gap since they are among the groups more likely to live in poverty and more likely to need legal assistance. Deficits in indigent defense in the criminal justice system have similarly disproportionate effects.

“It is imperative for the progressive community make access to justice in the United States a priority because even the most progressive laws have no meaning for most Americans if there is no way to make sure they are enforced,” said Buckwalter-Poza. “The gap between legal needs and the services available exacerbates systemic inequities and disadvantages that are likely to grow over the next four years. In the United States, people need a lawyer for everything from securing essential human needs, such as housing, to protecting their constitutional and civil rights.”

As the brief highlights, in more than three-fourths of all civil trial cases in the United States, at least one litigant does not have a lawyer, with this number rising to 70 percent to 98 percent of cases when it comes to family law, domestic violence, housing, and small-claims matters. Then, there is the other side of the equation: the Americans who, without access to legal advice and unaware of their legal rights and potential claims, do not even make it to court. Past estimates and more recent state-by-state studies suggest that about 80 percent of the civil legal needs of those living in poverty go unmet, as well as 40 percent to 60 percent of the needs of middle-income Americans.

“Access to justice is a long-neglected policy concern integral to American democracy, and it is time to prioritize improvements in civil aid and indigent defense through legislative and infrastructure initiatives,” said Buckwalter-Poza. “To deny Americans access to legal assistance is to deny them their rights and protections, resulting in a country where justice is not about who is right and who is wrong but about those who can afford legal assistance and those who simply cannot.”

Read the full issue brief here.

For more information or to speak to an expert on this topic, please contact Tanya Arditi at or 202.741.6258.