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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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State should bolster civil legal aid

By Peter J. Grabicki and Judge Gregory J. Tripp Special to The Spokesman-Review

Too often during a legislative session, we hear about the differences between the citizens of Eastern Washington and those on the West Side. Too often lost in legislative debates are our similarities.

For those of us who work in the legal system across Washington state, we share a commitment to making sure everyone has access to justice, regardless of their income.

That is why we are proud to add our voices to leaders in the legal community, in business and law enforcement who are asking our legislators to make a needed investment to improve our state’s civil legal aid system to provide access to justice for all our citizens.

From former Attorney General Rob McKenna to the leaders of our state’s top companies, to county prosecutors, the call to increase funding for civil legal aid truly resonates.

Everyone knows that government must provide legal assistance to those facing criminal charges. However, there is no such constitutional requirement to represent people caught up in the civil justice system. Yet having legal assistance in a civil case can prevent homelessness, secure lifesaving medical benefits and protect victims of domestic violence. That’s why at both the state and federal level we provide civil legal aid to the most vulnerable members of society.

Unfortunately, we are falling short in that effort, according to a 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study Update conducted by Washington State University. That study found that more than 70 percent of low-income households face one – or more – civil legal problems each year. Even more disturbing, the study indicated that three out of four poorer individuals caught up in the civil system don’t receive any legal assistance despite qualifying for it.

We can – and must – do better.

Fortunately, improving our civil legal aid system is receiving bipartisan support in the legislature this year. Both the Republican-controlled state Senate and the Democrat-led state House have written budgets that increase funding for the Office of Civil Legal Aid.

The House budget calls for an increase of over $7 million for OCLA to improve its services to those in need. This will allow the state to do a better job helping veterans, victims of domestic violence, and families with children needing to navigate the civil justice system, like Spokane native A’Lesha and her two boys.

Civil legal aid saved A’Lesha’s and her children’s lives. A’Lesha’s ex-partner abused her for years. She couldn’t find a way to escape. She was trapped, isolated and feared for her children’s safety. Finally, A’Lesha connected with a domestic violence advocate at the Spokane YWCA who referred her to the Northwest Justice Project, an organization funded by the state’s civil legal aid program. An NJP attorney helped A’Lesha secure a parenting plan that allowed her and her children to find safety and protection. This resulted in recovery from this traumatic experience and a new, better life. In fact, A’Lesha has been able to focus on her career, lifting her family out of poverty.

Stories like A’Lesha’s are clear examples of why we must invest in legal aid. The budget negotiations currently taking place in Olympia are challenging. Our elected leaders face tough choices in deciding how best to use our taxpayer dollars. The 2015 WSU study showed that civil legal aid is one of those priorities that actually saves the state money, by making the legal system more predictable for both businesses and individuals.

Additionally, it’s important to note where civil legal aid is not spent, and that’s on partisan political advocacy. The state’s investment in legal aid cannot be used for class action lawsuits, lobbying or representation of undocumented aliens. Instead, civil legal aid serves low-income Washingtonians to help keep them housed, safe, and healthy.

That is why we believe that our legislators should agree on the funding level in the House budget. This investment in our civil justice system is overdue.

It is a bedrock of our democracy that everyone deserves access to justice, not just those who can afford to pay for attorneys. And providing help to the most vulnerable in our society is a value we share across Washington state.

Peter Grabicki is a Spokane attorney and on the board of the Legal Foundation of Washington, which administers grants for low income civil legal aid support. Spokane County District Judge Greg Tripp serves as a member of the Office of Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee.