Carved above the doors to the U.S. Supreme Court are the words “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW.” This commitment to equal justice is echoed in the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily by school children and at public events. The Fairfield County Bar works to help make these words a reality.
The Bar prides itself in staffing the local monthly Fairfield County Legal Clinics. At the Bar’s President’s Party last year, bar president Matthew Wideman spoke of the important work all attorneys do, from the big cases to the “little” cases and the help given…the less stalwart among us. During dinner, I heard attorney Norman Ogilvie describe one such case, with kindness and humor. “A little old man” and his guardian—his ex-sister-in-law who lived in his house with him—had come to the Clinic seeking help filing a required accounting with the Probate Court. In helping, he discovered several mortgages on the man’s home unapproved by the Probate Court. Evidently visits by door-to-door home improvement salesmen had resulted in bad mortgages on the home, the monthly payments on which were not even enough to amortize the principal.
Attorney Ogilvie filed to set aside the mortgages. Countless billable hours later and many twists and turns—including the deaths of the gentleman and his sister-in-law—he said, “If you commit to pro bono, I don’t know how you don’t do the best you can do.”
Unfortunately, this one bar’s dedication to equal justice and its valuable help cannot fill the widening gap between those bedrock words and reality. In 2012, there were 37,745 attorneys in Ohio, about one for every 305 residents. For Fairfield and Hocking Counties, there are now only two legal aid attorneys to help about 32,369 indigent residents; in 2008, there were five. This is not equal justice for all.
What happens when more parents believe they lost custody because the other parent had an attorney and they did not? Or more people lose wages and property to unknown collection entities with no documentation the debt is owed, but the entity had an attorney? Or tenants are evicted for not paying rent when they did not have adequate heat or safe housing, but the management company had an attorney? Is equal justice to be only a dream deferred? And, if so, as Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Legal aid and local bar associations can help, but cannot alone ensure that equal justice is more than dead words carved in stone. Across the country, legal aid programs have been a driving force to make change real in millions of lives and to find answers for families needing housing, food, and healthcare. We work to correct bad policy and change how the most vulnerable are treated. This is what we do every day in Fairfield and 29 other counties in southeast Ohio. We need your help. Volunteer. Donate. Speak up. If you would like to help, but are not sure how, give us a call.