Study: Low-Income Oregonians Are Not Receiving Necessary Legal Aid

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
March 1, 2019 9:38 p.m.

A new study released by Oregon's Access to Justice Coalition, surveyed low-income Oregonians' access to legal aid in civil cases.

It found that Oregon is meeting only about 16 percent of the need for low-income civil legal aid services.


Civil cases involve any issues that are not criminal in nature, for example, issues with an employer or landlord.

"Everyone knows from watching police dramas on television the Miranda warning with the line that says, 'You have the right to an attorney,' but that’s only talking about criminal cases," said Bill Penn, assistant director of the legal services program at the Oregon State Bar and assistant director of the Oregon Law Foundation.

"With [civil] cases, you don’t have a right to an attorney and if you can’t find one that you can afford, you’re likely going through the process on your own," he said.

Legal aid offices are designed to provide free lawyers to low-income individuals who are eligible, Penn said.

Those are people who make up to 125 percent of the federal poverty index.


"For a family of four, that's just $31,373 a year, so super low income," Penn said.

The study, conducted by Portland State University, revealed that about 84 percent of the people surveyed who had legal issues did not receive legal help of any kind.

This is due to a lack of funding for legal aid offices and a limited amount of legal aid attorneys, Penn said.

"There are some national estimates of the number of attorneys you need in order to provide minimally viable access to justice — that’s not good, that’s not great, that’s minimal service level to the community," he said.

That number is two attorneys for every 10,000 low-income individuals, Penn said. "At the current funding level in Oregon, we have two attorneys for every 14,000 people who qualify for service."

Penn said, the low percentage of low-income individuals who received legal aid also relates to a lack of trust in the legal system.

Near the end of the study, researchers asked respondents about their perceived fairness of the legal system.

In response to questions like "How often do you think you or your family, friends or neighbors are treated fairly by the civil legal system?" the majority of respondents said only "some of the time."

"If we think about our values as Americans when we say the Pledge of Allegiance and we say 'justice for all,' we want people to respond to those questions and say 'all of the time,'" Penn said.