Equal Access to The Justice System

icon-lady-scales90by Attorney R. Peter Decato
Yesterday, June 14, 2016, a Sullivan County jury returned a verdict of not guilty in an incest case. Not guilty verdicts are returned most every day in our court system, so what is the
big deal you might say.
The big deal is this: the man who was found not guilty yesterday had intended to plead guilty because he didn’t have the money to pay for legal representation. Rather than strap his family with huge legal fees, he was intending to plead guilty and “take the rap” for something he didn’t do. Representation was provided, notwithstanding the money issue, and the verdict was not guilty. As a result, an injustice was avoided.
We clearly have a problem in this country and it has been a problem for a long time. It’s called “equal access to the justice system.” Everybody should be able to have their day in court
just as the man did in Sullivan County. The man in Sullivan County was a hard-working man and he made enough money to make him ineligible for the public defender’s services.
The man is the typical middle-class wage earner who makes enough money to survive and nothing more. He has no “excess money” to pay for legal fees just because it’s a “rainy day.” So how is he to get representation?
It bothers me – and it should bother you – that innocent people feel they have no choice but to plead guilty. I see few ways to combat this except to let people know there is a problem.
The ultimate solution, of course, is funding to ensure that representation is always available. But in the absence of funding, it is up to lawyers everywhere to step up from time to time and provide representation for someone who can’t otherwise afford it.
Throughout my career as a lawyer,
I’ve seen countless lawyers step up and do this. The
lawyer’s generosity – often overlooked – if one of many reasons why we call the practice of law, a profession. Professional people “give back.” You see it with doctors all the time (e.g., “doctors
without borders).
I urge every lawyer to embrace an opportunity from time to time to represent someone who can’t otherwise afford your services. If you do that, the reward you will receive will be of a different kind.
The reward will likely exceed your investment of time and energy.
Affecting people’s lives in a positive way has a tendency to do that.