Ellie’s Blog: May 29, 2014
“The Information Gap”
I was in a brainstorming meeting the other day with various nonprofit legal professionals. Somewhere along the way, I spoke of how the “information gap leads to the justice gap.” A colleague then complimented me on the ease with which I “connect dots.”
The compliment humbled me. Actually, I hadn’t realized that my words might be significant. Yet, as I thought about it, I realized it is true: a lack of information about legal resources ends up hurting people in the end.
We in the nonprofit legal community often speak of the “justice gap”—where a person is unable to connect with lawyers, which then puts at risk necessities like a safe place to live or one’s personal safety or the ability to remain connected to a child or key family member.
Yet, let me take a stab at “information.”
The reality is that many people simply don’t understand—or don’t want to know—how the legal system works. Can I maybe ignore that letter from the bank in my mailbox with “Read Immediately” printed on the outside? Can my landlord actually evict me by simply saying “You’ve got forty-eight hours to get out”? What should I consider relative to my financial situation and bankruptcy?
It gets worse. Almost all of the divorce and child custody cases in Hennepin County involve one or both parties being unrepresented by lawyers. This amounts to thousands of cases and tens of thousands of “self-represented litigants” attempting to navigate the system on their own. Almost every one of these people lacks legal training of any kind. Many have no idea how papers get filed; what information should be included in forms; or god forbid, how to assemble and introduce evidence in the event of a hearing or trial.
All of these examples reflect “information”—the ability to understand how one’s rights and assets will be affected by variables that may or may not come to fruition. An absence of such understanding can then profoundly affect a person’s life.
Still, “information” implicates one more thing—the ability to know where to turn for legal help. This is a more macro level of “information” and the area of our expertise at Call for Justice. Our goal, simply put, is to help people better connect with lawyers and legal resources so that they don’t lose life’s basic necessities, so that they’re not floating completely lost in the system.
We are cheerleaders of programs that offer legal help and resources. We do our best to get the word out about longstanding or new resources that will open the legal system to everyone. Our website has become a “go-to” place for where to locate those resources. Indeed, check out our “Cheat Sheet” that lists resources by category of legal need (View “Cheat Sheet”). We’re telling everyone the starting point for good information is United Way 2-1-1 (just dial “211”).
So, information is critical. We’ll continue to reinforce that point as we do our work, connecting dots.