A Matter of Class: Legal Action and Barriers to Such

Talking about taking legal matters to court last month, I touched upon the fact that class plays a key role in whether people can access the legal system. This is something I’ve also discussed in my posts discussing the prison and ‘justice’ system in the United States, where class can determine what kind of defense people are able to mount, and whether they go to prison or are allowed to walk free. For all that the legal system is supposed to be based on fair evaluation of circumstances, money talks, and money tends to walk.

It’s worth probing this more deeply, because one of the great myths of the legal system in this country is that it is open to all. As a result, when people experience inequality that seems like it could be addressed in the legal system, they are often accused of not caring or working hard enough to resolve the matter if they do not take the matter to court. The assumption is that if they just tried harder, or put a little more thought into it, they wouldn’t be oppressed. People are shamed for not seeking legal assistance, and they are reminded, yet again, of the cluelessness of people in higher social classes, people to whom access to the legal system seems natural and expected, a right.

Within the criminal justice system system, the government is required to provide legal assistance to people who cannot afford it, but the quality of that assistance varies. Not, I hasten to add, because people like public defenders are bad at their jobs. Because they often have very high case loads, which makes it hard to focus on a single case, especially a complex one. Because they have limited resources for conducting investigations, retaining expert witnesses, and doing everything possible to win a case. Public defenders do the best with what they have and sometimes catch a lucky break in the form of pro bono assistance through a law firm or public service organization.

But this is nothing compared to the defense and legal teams people with money can muster. Starting with ‘team,’ as in a group of highly qualified lawyers supported by paralegals, administrative assistants, and investigators. If information is available, there’s a good chance they will find it, because they do not leave a single stone unturned. They conduct detailed investigations, they plan ahead, they devote a lot of time and energy to defense. If they can’t win a case, they will push hard for sentence reduction, credit for time served, and other benefits, with the goal of making the situation as comfortable for their clients as possible. This level of service is not available to people who need public defenders. It’s just not, and that sets up inherent inequalities even in the system where people allegedly have an equal and fair shake.

It gets even worse in the civil system, where people do not have a legal right to an attorney. People who need to pursue or defend matters in civil court must pay for their own representation or attempt to represent themselves. For simple matters, self-guided law books can be really helpful and may provide all the material people need to succeed in court. For more complex issues, however, an attorney is really necessary. Take a stab at what those might be; landlord-tenant disputes, employment law, immigration matters, discrimination. When someone with no money is going up against someone with money in civil court, there’s really only one possible outcome, and it is not a pretty one. It is certainly not a just one.

People believe the legal system in this country is just and fair. It is held up as an example for the world to marvel at. But, on the ground, this just don’t hold up. Just as society is marred with class stratification and severe inequality, the legal system shares these class divides. Money goes further in court just like it does everywhere else and people without money are at a permanent and often impossible to breach disadvantage. The myth that ‘everyone’ can go to court, that ‘everyone’ can have a fair chance in court, means that when people of lower class status fail to prevail in court, people assume this is fair. They must have really committed the crime, they must not have really been discriminated against, they must really deserve eviction, they must have…

And thus, people can shift the blame to the victim, rather than examining the context of the system in which the trial takes place, or the system that makes it impossible for someone to even go to trial. Every time poor people are informed that they have failed because they could not mount an effective case in court, it’s a reminder that society thinks poverty is their fault, and believes that the consequences of poverty are personal failings, rather than what they really are, which is the result of systemic inequality.

In a fair system, everyone would have the same caliber of representation in court, and it would be good. In a fair system, people would be heard by juries of their peers, would not be tried in a court with a bias, would not be heard by a judge who believes they are worthless and the things that happen to them are their fault. In a fair system, the outcome of a court case would not be predictable at the start on the basis of pocketbook size, although people might be able to make estimates about what might happen on the basis of the known facts and the merits.

The legal system is not universally acceptable. To pretend that it is is clearly fallacious, and it presents yet another barrier to social equality. If we say the courts are equal, that means the legal system does not need reform.

And it clearly does.