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In Civil Court, Most Low-Income Nevadans Can't Get Attorneys

Nevada has only 84 attorneys that provide free legal assistance to the state's low-income population of nearly 500,000. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
Nevada has only 84 attorneys that provide free legal assistance to the state's low-income population of nearly 500,000. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
August 1, 2018

CARSON CITY, Nev. – If you can't afford an attorney, one will be provided for you in American criminal courts. But that isn't the case in civil courts, and a new study examines the thousands of cases each year of Nevadans facing the legal system without representation.

Commissioned by the Nevada Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission, the study said three out of four low-income Nevadans with legal challenges aren't able to get a lawyer for cases involving issues such as domestic violence, home foreclosures or workplace discrimination.

Brad Lewis, the commission's director, said people without attorneys often give up or lose their cases, which can lock them into a cycle of poverty.

"Those problems often beget people missing work, and then they lose their job as a result of that," he said. "Then they lose their income, then they can't pay their rent, then they have to move somewhere, then their children don't attend school or get changed to a different school."

Lewis said Legal Aid attorneys, who provide free representation, can not only bring positive outcomes in court but also help connect people with resources toward a more productive life. But the study found that more public funding is needed for legal-aid programs.

The number of Nevadans in poverty has grown since the Great Recession. The study showed that in Nevada, there's now just one Legal Aid attorney for every 6,000 lower-income residents. Lewis said about 15 times as many lawyers are available to the state's wealthier populations.

"Is it fair that a poor person is most likely to lose their case, and someone who can afford a lawyer is most likely to win their case? Justice shouldn't just be for the wealthy and the powerful and the connected," he said. "It really needs to be for everyone."

The study said every $1 invested in low-income legal assistance returns about $7 to the state, because working out civil issues in court can prevent costs down the road for services such as law enforcement or health care. Legal Aid also can bring bigger payouts to the state in the form of benefits for veterans, children and people with disabilities.

The Nevada Legal Needs and Economic Impact Study is online at nvbar.org.

Katherine Davis-Young, Public News Service - NV