(Caleb Wolf/special to Salem Reporter)

Many low-income Oregonians who need legal help can’t get it and they pay a price, a new study found.

Such defendants are bombarded with legal issues. When they do have to appear in court, they often don’t understand the system or their rights and are forced try to represent themselves, according to a study by Oregon’s Access to Justice Coalition released earlier this month.

It was the first major study of the state of the legal aid system in 18 years, and the findings were troubling for Bill Penn of the Oregon Law Foundation, who helped put the report together.

Penn and his colleagues found those most in need of legal help can’t access it or don’t know it’s available. The report comes as legislators consider a proposal for better funding for the state’s legal aid system.

Funding for legal aid statewide is at $16.4 million. A little under $6 million per year comes from the state budget, a figure that’s been fixed since 2011. The rest comes from private funding, federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation and smaller local and state grants.

Since 2011, the state’s population has increased by about 390,000 people. Pending legislation would increase the state's contribution to $7.5 million, and attach the funding to the consumer price index so it can better fluctuate with the economy. Senate Bill 357 is now before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

In 2017, legal aid served 28,500 Oregonians with its 116 lawyers. Oregon has 807,000 low-income residents, according to testimony, providing two legal aid lawyers for every 14,000 residents eligible for their services. According to testimony, the national standard is two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income residents.

Researchers surveyed 1,017 Oregonians with incomes that put them in the category of impoverished. One in five Oregonians fall under that threshold.

Respondents were quizzed about legal issues they might face, ranging from a living in a pest-infested home to facing deportation.

The study found three out of four people experienced a legal issue in the past year. On average, those questioned had experienced 5.4 legal issues in the past year and 84 percent didn’t get any legal help. They faced issues including housing, discrimination, access to health care, immigration proceedings or escaping abuse.

“Many tend to affect lower income individuals more because they are more vulnerable,” Penn said.

The most common issues, the study found, were credit and debt issues. Housing was also prevalent. Participants ranked as the most severe issues those related to immigration, disability, aging, employment and access to the legal system, Penn said.

Now that the system better understands the most impactful issues, it can prioritize its resources, Penn said.

“They are charged to address the most important legal issues that low income individuals experience because there is not enough funding to provide a lawyer anytime someone has a problem,” Penn said.

Researchers also found the need for legal help is not uniform. For example, black Oregonians were twice as likely as whites to be homeless.

In fact, the study found black Oregonians experienced legal issues at a higher rate than those of other ethnic backgrounds in all legal areas except homeownership. The study determined this was likely due to systemic racism that has made it harder for black people to own homes. Only 6 percent of the black participants said they owned a home.

Native Americans reported similarly high rates of legal need, as did Latinx.

Ethnicity isn’t always the indicator for how much someone needs help. The study found victims of sexual and domestic abuse were six times more likely to be homeless than those who haven’t experienced abuse, a metric Penn said was “shocking.”

While homelessness is largely seen as an urban issue, the study found otherwise. In the Portland area, 4.5 percent said they experienced a homelessness issue. In rural parts of the state, the figure was 14 percent.

The study found only half those surveyed were aware of legal aid. Only about 16 percent got help from a lawyer of any kind, including simple legal advice.

The study found that low-income Oregonians struggle to get legal help when they first need it, and continue to be blocked from an attorney after they appear in court. Ten percent had been involved in a civil hearing in the past year. Only a third of them reported they understood the process.

“That’s not a good state for us to be in – having a third of people going to court not knowing what was going on,” Penn said.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: aubrey@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1251. 

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