William Evertsen, a social worker who has spent most of his life helping children, recently needed a helping hand. He had received phone calls from a debt collector, repeatedly asking, “How are you going to pay today?”
The problem? He didn’t owe them any money. But when the company decided to sue him anyway, William, a 60-year-old HIV-positive New Yorker, couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight back.
He therefore lost the case and had to file for bankruptcy.
Evertsen is not alone. On more than 4 million debt collection files each year, seven out of 10 end in default judgments against the defendant. If you don’t speak the legalese, that means 3 million Americans are losing these lawsuits without the courts considering the facts.
Why? To hire a lawyer in a civil case, you have to deposit hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And if you don’t have that kind of money, you’re out of luck. Many people think that lawyers work on a contingency basis, work for free, and only get paid if their client wins. But that’s not how it works in many areas of law where the potential payout doesn’t exist.
Legal fees are akin to a modern poll tax, a tax that four out of five low-income Americans cannot afford. What if you try to defend yourself in court? Then you’re faced with modern literacy tests – legal forms designed to be too complicated for anyone but lawyers to understand.
This injustice is one of the most urgent civil rights violations of our time, but it is more than that. It is also a violation of human rights, which is happening right here in America.
After World War II, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document they produced has served as the basis for more than 70 human rights treaties, applied worldwide, and one of the rights it sets out is “recognition everywhere as a person before the law” without discrimination.
In America today, millions of people do not have this right, simply because they cannot afford an attorney – and because the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) rules, which are in effect in all 50 states, make it illegal to receive help navigating the legal system from someone else.
The daily news flash
Days of the week
Find the five best stories of the day every afternoon of the week.
To find out just how ridiculous and dangerous these UPL rules can be, look no further than their impact on the Paralegal Pathways Initiative at Columbia Law School.
One of us, Devon, founded this initiative after spending hundreds of hours studying the law while incarcerated. The aim of the program is to help prison lawyers find employment in the legal field through a 14-week training course that teaches technical skills, ethics, communication, interviewing and other basics. that would allow someone to become a paralegal.
But even after all that training, graduates could face a criminal offense for providing basic legal advice, even for free. That does not make any sense. Why couldn’t Devon or one of his students help someone figure out how to respond to a complaint from their landlord, the same way they could help a friend figure out how to handle a health crisis?
Another of us, Sukti, is the director of NYU Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights. The Institute is housed in a law school, but it opposes the monopoly of lawyers on the judicial system. Indeed, a large part of the Institute’s mission is to ensure that historically excluded communities can better understand, use and transform the laws that impact their lives – and community-focused legal advice is essential. to this process.
The final co-author of this piece, Rohan, decided that his non-profit organization, To resolvewould like to sue new york, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s outdated UPL rules. Oral argument will be heard today in the Southern District of New York. If Upsolve is successful, they will be able to train nonprofit community professionals to provide free legal advice to people like William, which would be a big step forward. Upsolve focuses on debt collection, though low-income families face barriers to justice in domestic violence law, wage theft, veterans affairs, family law, bankruptcy and expungement from the criminal record, to name a few.
But that’s what it would be — a step. Because we need to get rid of these overbroad laws not just in New York but across the country. It means speaking out and exposing the UPL for what it is: a human rights abuse against the poor that denies millions of Americans equal rights under the law.
Pavuluri is the co-founder of To resolve and the American movement for justiceDhital is the executive director of Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU Law School, and Simmons is project director of the Paralegal Pathways Initiative at Columbia Law School.