by Tom Gordon
Today, the World Justice Project released its annual Rule of Law Index, ranking the commitment of 140 countries to the rule of law. Although the United States ranked 26th 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 115th out of 142 countries. It scored—by far—the worst among high-income countries In fact, its ranking was near the median of countries in the low-income tier, consisting of the 18 poorest countries surveyed. According to the Index, access and affordability of legal help in the U.S. is around the same as it is in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.
How is it that in the U.S., with over one million lawyers, it's so difficult to find affordable legal help compared to far poorer countries with far fewer lawyers? This paradox makes more sense when we recognize that it's the size and power of the legal establishment that makes legal solutions so expensive. Regulation of lawyers is controlled by lawyers. Those lawyers who are most involved in regulation tend to be those who have been most indoctrinated in—and financially benefit from—maintaining the status quo. Lawyers who want to work in innovative business models and other legal 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 only other categories in the Rule of Law Index where the U.S. ranked so low were ones dealing with discrimination in the civil and criminal justice systems. 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. And when, for example, the South Carolina NAACP wants to offset this imbalance by providing free help to tenants facing eviction, it needs to sue the legal cartel to seek permission to do so.
I've written before about how the American Bar Association wraps itself in the mantle of protecting the rule of law while simultaneously putting the business interests of some lawyers ahead of access to justice. The Rule of Law Index demonstrates that these two positions are incompatible. If the U.S. wants to maintain its reputation for upholding the rule of law, 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.