The rule of law ensures that societies function democratically. Without just, prompt legal representation in a complex society, citizens would not be able to successfully understand nor protect their rights when violated. According to the World Justice Project, the rule of law rests upon four principles. First, law ensures accountability by requiring that government as well as private actors are accountable under the law. Second, laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect citizens’ fundamental human, security, and property rights. Third, law maintains accessible, fair, and efficient processes by which laws are enacted, administered, and enforced. This principle is also known as open government, or the principle that “citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight,” according to reporter Daniel Lathrop. Fourth, law demands accessible and impartial dispute resolution. Legal representatives must be competent, ethical, independent, and neutral actors who are accessible, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
With such noble, human-focused aims, the rule of law often appears the backbone of many societies. But while the law itself can appear straightforward in theory, enter into the practice of law and one soon discovers that interpretation is the name of the game–and legal interpretation is a minefield. Citizens without legal training and schooling typically cannot understand the nuances of their rights in practice, let alone successfully represent themselves in court. Not only is the practice of law esoteric to the point of being arcane, but law in practice also has become elitist in terms of logistical accessibility in the United States. Many U.S. citizens cannot afford legal assistance as cost barriers render it virtually impossible for all but high-income individuals to access legal schooling and assistance. Immigrants are represented more unfairly than citizens in court, as the federal government is not legally obligated to provide lawyers for immigrants, unlike citizens. As many immigrants cannot afford to hire a private lawyer–63 percent in 2016, according to the American Immigration Council–they end up representing themselves against largely partial judges. The U.S. court system is not fulfilling the aims of the rule of law, which uphold above all else law’s accessibility for the people it is meant to serve. Our government and our law firms need to make legal schooling and assistance more accessible to those wishing to practice law and those in need of legal representation in order to adequately fulfill the purpose of the rule of law, rather than merely perform lip service to its aims.
Although those who enact and practice law seek to brings justice to all, we should not deny that the profession of law itself presents real barriers to entry for many aspiring practitioners and clients alike. A strong correlation between high socioeconomic class and law can be tracked in law school admissions. Lawyers tend to come from upper-class backgrounds. U.C.L.A. law professor Richard Sanders remarked that “the vast majority of American law students come from relatively elite backgrounds; this is especially true at the most prestigious law schools, where only five percent of all students come from families whose S.E.S. [socioeconomic status] is in the bottom half of the national distribution.” Further, a 2017 study conducted by the Legal Services Corporation found that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in 2016 received inadequate or no legal help due to individuals’ inability to afford necessary legal assistance. The American Bar Association estimates that 40 to 60 percent of middle-class individuals cannot afford necessary legal assistance. Such shockingly widespread educational and socioeconomic barriers to legal education and services deserve our attention. As knowing one’s rights constitutes a basic human need in complex societies, all should have ready access to the field of law as both potential practitioners and clients, and regardless of external, uncontrollable barriers.
The rule of law is meant to ensure that ALL citizens have the opportunity to understand and protect their fundamental rights. If legal systems remain inaccessible to any requiring its services, they become not only unjust, but also corrupt. The U.S. legal system has become corrupt for this very reason. This lack of accessibility means our legal system–from law school entry to legal practice–discriminates based upon socioeconomic class, race, and myriad other identifying factors. While all people and organizations should be equal before the law, the reality is that the U.S. legal system does not offer impartiality to all parties seeking justice. To even begin to combat our unjust legal system, we must increase the accessibility of legal schooling and legal assistance for marginalized groups across the country.