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Justice: Poor not getting legal services needed
The head of the public defender's office in Brunswick agrees with Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, who said Wednesday too many people in Georgia are not getting the legal services they need.

Thompson, delivering a state of the court address to a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in Atlanta, said the people who lose out the most are the poor and rural populations.

"Justice Thompson is correct in that many Georgians cannot afford to hire lawyers to represent them in civil cases," said Kevin Gough, chief public defender of the five-county Brunswick Judicial Circuit. "Many families live paycheck to paycheck and simply cannot afford to shell out several thousand dollars to retain a lawyer."

Gough said the problem is not due to a shortage of lawyers.

"To the contrary, Georgia has far more lawyers than are needed to meet the legal needs of the public," Gough said. "Every year, the law schools in and around Georgia produce many more new lawyers than the legal market can absorb. These young men and women are often unable to find legal work.

"The issue is not the availability of lawyers but the lack of financial resources with which ordinary people may hire them."

Gough said taxpayers are generally unwilling to foot the bill to fund private civil litigation.

SDLqThe state of Georgia and many county governments already struggle to adequately fund constitutionally guaranteed counsel in criminal cases," Gough said. "The additional cost of providing counsel in civil cases could potentially bankrupt the state."

Thompson, in the first-ever state of the judiciary address in Georgia, said 70 percent of the state's lawyers work in five counties in metro Atlanta, and six counties have no lawyers at all, he said.

Because of inadequate legal services, courts statewide are seeing an increase in the number of people representing themselves, he said.

"Most of us grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school, in which we promised 'liberty and justice for all.' I don't believe we ever meant, 'liberty and justice only for those who can afford it,"' Thompson said. "Our legal system is an adversarial system of justice. The reality is that poor people who represent themselves often lose."

He gave specific examples of people who could be harmed without legal assistance: a woman who needs protection from an abusive husband, veterans denied promised education and disability benefits, and the elderly who are often the targets of fraud.

The state also needs more court interpreters to ensure that people who don't speak English are not denied justice, he said.

Georgia currently has 149 licensed court interpreters, and they speak 12 languages, which is not enough, he said.

A bright spot in the state's legal system is the expansion of accountability courts which give judges an alternative to incarceration for offenders who qualify to have their cases handled in them. Of those who complete the programs, 93 percent remain free of criminal charges, he said.

Thanks to appropriations by the Legislature, he said, the state will have 102 accountability courts by the spring with more to come.

Thompson was sworn in to a four-year term as chief justice in August after being unanimously elected to the post by his peers.

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