As the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission prepares for the Final Hearing in November, the nation is facing one of the largest financial catastrophes in recent history. The Commission was established specifically to find innovative ways to address barriers to legal representation for people with low income and also those with modest means.
Analysts predict that this situation is not going to change anytime soon. And as an entity who has already been reviewing the available resources within the state, that’s more than a little scary. There are many dedicated attorneys and human service organizations that are working diligently to meet the need. And the need is only going to grow.
Just last week at the Heroes in the Fight Dinner, led by Mental Health America of South Carolina, I spoke with Ed Mullins of Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, LLP about access to justice. He reminded me that many South Carolinians with mental illness face numerous barriers to access to justice.
And it’s true. Prior to my Commission work, I assisted people with disabilities, many with mental illness, in their struggle with civil rights violations. I saw people battling depression who defaulted on custody and divorce actions because they were so overwhelmed by their illness. Other people struggled with their bipolar disorder, cycling through manic and depressive states, sometimes running up bills and other times unable to pay bills.
I was reminded of the nefarious link between mental health and barriers to justice when I read about Addie Polk in Ohio. Ms. Polk is a 90 year old woman who shot herself while sheriff’s deputies tried to evict her. Add to that, this economic slump/recession/depression/downturn/collapse/etc. has just begun.
Maybe if Ms. Polk had access to legal services or a pro bono attorney, she would have not become so desperate, so distraught, so despondent. It’s likely she thought she was unable to afford an attorney. That’s where access to justice becomes crucial. There are many resources available, but not knowing that there are resources, coupled with not knowing where to find them, that’s when people lose hope.
The financial decline may subside, but this is not about money. This is about lives. And when someone loses their home – it deeply affects them. And, in turn, their mental well-being.
That’s when barriers to justice impact the public, when they impact people who are emotionally fragile.
For Ms. Polk and others like her.