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Courting Equality

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

One thing that the delivery of legal services in this country has in common with healthcare is the fact that too many individuals and families simply can’t afford it. The impact is hardest on those with low and moderate incomes. In terms of healthcare, it comes down to cost—whether paying for insurance or the care itself. As for legal representation, unless it’s a criminal matter requiring a court-appointed attorney, many people dealing with civil matters are forced to go it alone and the consequences can be enormous even for minor matters.

In healthcare, one encouraging development is the use of nurse practitioners. It is estimated that Americans now make more than 900 million visits each year to nurse practitioners (they will be an even larger presence in healthcare in the years ahead), who are more accessible and affordable than doctors. Like doctors, they diagnose illness, treat patients, order tests and administer or prescribe medications (in New Jersey, nurse practitioners can prescribe medication under a collaboration protocol with a physician.

My point in mentioning nurse practitioners is to show how critical they are in delivering much-needed care to people in an affordable way. This stands in contrast to what’s available for those needing legal representation on noncriminal matters. One area that comes to mind is that of evictions, which has begun to receive long overdue attention with the publication in 2016 of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond.

From his research, Desmond went on to establish the Eviction Lab in 2017 with Princeton University, which includes a nationwide database of stats on evictions and information on issues surrounding evictions. Emerging from Desmond’s work is the idea that those facing eviction, given what’s at stake, should have the right to an attorney even if they can’t afford one. That’s where the idea of having the legal equivalent of a nurse practitioner comes into play.

While an answer to the problem might be a paralegal, I’m not sure that paralegals currently have the same ability to do in the legal realm what nurse practitioners do in healthcare. New Jersey does not regulate paralegals with respect to training and education and while New Jersey does have some voluntary certifications via the New Jersey Certified Paralegal credential from the South New Jersey Paralegal Association, it’s not equivalent.

I’m not minimizing the work done by paralegals, but given the stakes involved in many noncriminal matters, we need to consider expanding the role of paralegals in evictions and other civil matters of consequence. This might occur in much the way the healthcare industry uses nurse practitioners to meet needs through uniform credentialing and training for paralegals who desire it in order to address the unmet needs in our courtrooms.

Just looking at evictions, consider that the rates of eviction drop when a defendant has legal representation. According to J. Brian Charles, who wrote on the issue for the magazine Governing, a pilot project providing lawyers in a section New York City saw the rate of eviction drop 27 percent. In Philadelphia, it was estimated that a yearly investment of $3.2 million to provide counsel for those facing eviction would save the city some $45 million per year.

Such numbers certainly wouldn’t be as dramatic in Bridgeton where in 2016, there were 677 eviction filings. Cumberland County saw 3,003 filings that same year. Locally, I’m not judging if any single eviction filing was warranted nor am I making a value judgement about tenants and landlords. I am saying that eviction has serious consequences and if the courts are the forum to consider the monetary and business interests of the one side, then legal representation should be available or at least affordable to advocate for the interests of the other.

So whether we’re facing consequences surrounding the loss of employment, driving privileges, appealing the denial of benefits, custody of children or visitation, or credit worthiness, the difference between those who bear the full weight of such consequences and those who don’t often comes down to having an advocate in court.

Mayoral Musings