Phyllis Holmen, executive director of Georgia Legal Services Program
Phyllis Holmen, executive director of Georgia Legal Services Program ()

It shouldn’t take a lawyer to be able to go to school. But too often, it does.

An 11-year-old girl was expelled from a Georgia school and charged with criminal trespass because she wrote the word “Hi” on a locker. She is African-American. The white child who had been bullying her to go along with her own misconduct—defacing the walls and another student’s shoes with a marker—admitted to the prank. Her mother was able to pay for the damage and the white child was allowed back in school after a brief suspension.

The African-American child’s grandmother thought the proposed expulsion of her grandchild was unfair and called Georgia Legal Services Program. A GLSP lawyer represented the child at a school tribunal hearing. It rejected the proposed expulsion and admitted the child back in school.

Without a lawyer, she might well have spent time in a juvenile prison, and her school record and future career could have been permanently damaged. We’d all like to think schools were beyond discrimination like this, but sadly, many are not.

In another case, grandparents were told that, in order to enroll their grandchild in school, they had to go to court to secure formal guardianship, a time-consuming ordeal that could have cost as much as $1,500, and which is contrary to state law. It took a GLSP lawyer to persuade the school to admit the child, after the grandparents signed a simple form provided by the state Department of Education.

Studies across the country have been pointing out disparate school disciplinary measures that discriminate against children of color and often shunt them into the school-to-prison pipeline. Because of the importance of an education as a pathway out of poverty, GLSP has been prioritizing these cases for several years.

Georgia Legal Services Program exists to offer access to justice and opportunities out of poverty for families like these. We provide legal representation at no cost to those who otherwise could not afford a lawyer in noncriminal cases. We work for fairness and equal treatment under the law. We deliver on the promise of justice for all that is one of the founding principles of our nation.

This year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, where the concepts of due process and equal treatment were first written. Last year was the 225th anniversary of our own Constitution, which incorporated those values. The importance of these principles are demonstrated all over the world, when we see the people demonstrating in the streets, advocating for justice.

Our system of justice is the method we use to resolve disputes. Without it, there is no rule of law. And if everyone, rich and poor, does not have access to that system of justice, it is meaningless.

This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corp., the largest federally chartered entity that provides funding to 134 nonprofit law firms throughout the nation that provide legal services in civil (noncriminal) cases without charge.

Georgia Legal Services Program and Atlanta Legal Aid Society are the two LSC-funded law firms in Georgia that represent needy individuals and families in every one of our 159 counties. Every day, low-income Americans seek help from LSC-funded organizations with civil legal matters that go to the very heart of their safety and security.

Support for our mission is widespread, from leaders in the halls of government, to judges across the state, to lawyers who understand that our work is vital to the stability of our democracy. Those lawyers support our work financially and by providing their own services without charge to needy Georgians when we make referrals.

Although our funding was cut during the Great Recession, legal aid lawyers are still out there, helping low income citizens maintain their freedom, dignity and livelihoods. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia’s Fourth District said, “In the aftermath of the Great Recession and as income inequality continues to plague our society, there’s never been a greater need for the critical work of the Legal Services Corp. Whether it’s preventing scams against our senior citizens, helping homeowners prevent foreclosures, supporting our veterans and military families or fighting for workers’ rights, LSC has been on the front lines of providing civil legal aid for low-income Americans for the past 40 years.”

Next month in Washington, I will attend a three-day legal aid conference sponsored by LSC to celebrate its 40th birthday. Hillary Clinton, the LSC board chairwoman under Jimmy Carter, will be there, as will U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston. They will join leaders from business, government and the legal community who recognize that without access to a good lawyer, even the most basic rights in our nation can be at risk.