Article: Sara Sternberg Greene, “Race, Class, and Access to Civil Justice,” 101 Iowa L. Rev. 1263 (2016).
Existing research indicates that members of poor and minority groups are less likely than their higher income counterparts to seek help when they experience a civil legal problem. Indeed, roughly three-quarters of the poor do not seek legal help when they experience such problems. Inaction is even more pronounced among poor blacks. This Article uses original empirical data to provide novel explanations for these puzzling and troubling statistics. This study shows, for the first time, a connection between negative past experiences with the criminal justice system and decisions to seek help for civil justice problems. For those familiar with the law, civil and criminal law are separate categories across which experiences do not generalize, any more than a negative experience of subways would lead one to avoid driving. For most respondents, though, the criminal and civil justice systems are one and the same. Injustices they perceive in the criminal system translate into the belief that the legal system as a whole is unjust and should be avoided. Second, this Article shows that past negative experiences with a broad array of public institutions perceived as legal in nature caused respondents to feel lost and ashamed, leading them to avoid interaction with all legal institutions. Third, my data and interviews suggest that respondents helped make sense of these troubling experiences by more generally portraying themselves as self-sufficient citizens who solve their own problems. Seeking help from the legal system might run counter to this self portrayal. Finally, this Article provides a novel analysis of racial differences in how much citizens use the civil legal system and argues that disparities in trust levels help to explain these differences. This Article concludes by discussing potential policy implications of the findings and identifies key areas for further research.