Equal Justice Under Law: Connecting Principle to Practice


An estimated four-fifths of the legal needs of the poor, and the needs of two- to three-fifths of middle-income individuals, remain unmet. Only one lawyer is available to serve approximately 9,000 low-income persons, compared with one for every 240 middle- and upper-income Americans. Over the last two decades, national spending on legal assistance has been cut by a third, and increasing restrictions have been placed on the cases and clients that government-funded programs can accept. Entire categories of the “unworthy poor” have been denied assistance. Courts have largely acquiesced in these denials, as well as in ludicrously limited fees for court-appointed lawyers. The legal doctrine governing the effective assistance of counsel and the access to non-lawyer services is a conceptual embarrassment. The price is paid in untold misery—in loss of liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life. Yet, neither the public nor the profession has been moved to respond in any significant fashion. This Essay chronicles our abandoned aspirations. It begins with a candid confrontation of our failures: our unwillingness to take equal justice seriously at a theoretical, political, doctrinal, or professional level. It concludes with a challenge to do better.


Access to justice, Equal protection, Legal assistance to the poor, United States



Deborah L. Rhode (Stanford Law School)



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