We all know that there are critical components of every thriving community. We see them every day in our community, professional and public work — like vibrant public schools, servant leaders taking active roles in our community, volunteers helping those less fortunate to improve their lives, and a fair justice system.
We also know that our state and county face difficult challenges.
Thankfully, we in Lewis County have excellent representation in both legislative houses with John Braun and Reps. Richard DeBolt and Ed Orcutt.
Perhaps the busiest legislator this year is Sen. Braun, who just guided to passage in the Senate his first budget as the chairman of the Ways and Means Community.
The debate over K-12 funding is attracting the most attention this session. However, we have also been following an important issue that deserves to not get lost in the debate about how to fund our schools, mental health systems, protect our community from flooding and repair critical infrastructure.
That issue is adequate funding for our civil legal aid system.
We learn at an early age that low-income people are entitled to a lawyer at public expense when they are charged with a crime. What we rarely consider is that this right does not exist for victims of crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault, for veterans denied Veteran Affairs cash or medical benefits, for families faced with the loss of their homes through foreclosure or eviction, or for vulnerable seniors being financially exploited.
To get legal help these people must turn to our state’s civil legal aid system.
Consider a recent case involving a local veteran who had returned from Afghanistan and was having troubles adjusting to life at home. His wife was concerned about some of his actions, and his access to his children was in jeopardy.
He contacted Lewis County Bar Legal Aid, and thanks to their work with the couple, a plan was developed that allowed them both to remain involved in the parenting of their children. They did so without having to go to court. According to one volunteer, legal aid “made a big difference for this soldier.” Being able to maintain a relationship with his children has been a significant part of his recovery from his war experience.
Unfortunately, and despite the terrific work of Lewis County Bar Legal Aid and the statewide Northwest Justice Project, there are far too many people in need of legal help and there is far too little capacity to provide it. One recently published statewide study tells us that more than three quarters of low-income people who experience civil legal problems get no help at all.
Fortunately, our legislators understand the important role the state has ensuring equal access to our justice system regardless of income. They understand that the investment in timely legal aid services helps avoid costly and sometimes frivolous litigation. Early legal aid intervention helps our judicial system run more smoothly and efficiently, saves taxpayer money, and solves a dire need in our community.
In this time of budget and policy challenges, we should all be able to agree that access to justice is part of what helps our community succeed and is a central part of our democracy. We should encourage our elected leaders to do all they can to ensure the fairness of our civil justice system, and continue to adequately fund the civil legal aid system.
Peter J. Abbarno is an attorney with Althauser Rayan Abbarno LLP and a Centralia city councilor. Todd Chaput is president of the boards for the United Way of Lewis County and the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce.