Justice For … All?

You hear a lot in the news about big corporate lawsuits. If you closely followed this week’s business news, for example, you may have read about a jury ruling that Microsoft has to pay Alcatel-Lucent $367.4 million for violating patents. Imagine the money that must have gone into lawyers, research and experts — even the copying bill must have been enormous. And these cases take months to hear.
There were also court rulings about the drug Prevacid, another covering dialysis machines, and many, many others.
All of them big-money corporate cases with millions, even billions of dollars at stake. These big companies have the money to take these cases to court.
But what if you or I need to go to court? Are we on an equal footing?
A recent issue of The Progressive States Network’s newsletter, Stateside Dispatch, says,

According to Access to Justice: Opening the Courtroom Door [PDF file] by the Brennan Center, federal funding for legal services in real dollars has declined dramatically over the last twenty-five years. In 2004, federally-funded programs turned away at least one person seeking help for each person served, leading to approximately one million cases per year being turned away due to lack of funding.

In fact, the Brennan Center report states that “most low-income individuals cannot obtain counsel to represent them in civil matters.” On top of that, government-funded legal aid services are now by-and-large prohibited from helping people when they are harmed by corporations.
What do you do if you are a regular person injured by a product, or denied a job because of your age, or defrauded out of money, or any of things that can happen to people? It used to be that a law firm might take the case based on a contingency fee, where they receive a percentage of any award resulting from your case. But more and more these fees are restricted or awards are “capped.” So attorneys cannot afford to take your case. Even if you can find an attorney willing to take your case “pro bono” there is still the cost of research, depositions, expert witnesses, etc. to consider.
Is this fair? Is there anything more fundamental to our American concept of democracy than equal justice? Access to the courthouse is an example of democracy leveling the playing field and providing fairness. But we no longer have equal access. And this means we no longer have fairness.
So what can we do about this? First, we need to restore our own understanding of democracy and our individual stake in its preservation. We must all recognize that equal justice is a fundamental requirement of a democratic society. One reason this country was founded was to level the playing field between the rich and the poor. So we all need to demand equal treatment under the law.
In California we must demand a rollback of the “tort reform” measures that have taken away equal access to the courts and removed a regular person’s ability to fight back when harmed by a big company. We must either remove the award “caps” and limits on attorney fees or implement a system of government funding for attorneys who represent regular people. Is there an alternative to these approaches that levels the playing field and lets regular people stand a chance against the big money of corporations and the wealthy? If there is I don’t see it.