by Tom Gordon
Earlier this month, the World Justice Project released its annual Rule of Law Index, ranking the commitment of 139 countries to the rule of law. Although the United States ranked 27th overall, it continued to perform among the worst in the world in access to its civil legal system.
In the category, “People Can Access and Afford Civil Justice, the U.S. ranked 126th out of 139 countries. It was the worst among countries in the high income tier and ranked lower than every country in the upper middle income tier as well. Among the countries ranking higher than the U.S. in this category is Afghanistan. Yes, people in the U.S. have worse access to legal help than those in a war zone.
The only other category in the Rule of Law Index where the U.S. ranked nearly as low was “Civil Justice is Free of Discrimination.” This is not surprising, as making legal help dependent on high-priced lawyers has a disproportionate impact on women and people of color. These groups are not only less likely to have the financial resources to afford legal help; they’re less likely to have the background and connections to navigate the legal system on their own or to find someone who can help them informally.
I attended a conference a few years ago where a Kenyan judge mentioned that, even though there weren’t many lawyers in his country, people were able to access legal help from other competent legal service providers who operated in what he called “regulatory white space.” The U.S., by contrast, has over one million lawyers, but their services are unaffordable to most people because there is no regulatory white space. Lawyers who want to work in innovative business models and other service providers who want to compete with lawyers are both quickly shut down by regulations passed by the cartel of lawyers who fear competition with their traditional business model.
The American legal system is, in most ways, the envy of the world. However, to fully live up to that reputation, it needs to put a stop to regulation that puts the interests of the lawyers doing the regulating ahead of the public’s need for affordable, accessible legal help.