This commentary was originally published in Fortune on June 18, 2019.
The rule of law paves the way for prosperity, and American corporations have a major stake in keeping the country’s promise of equal justice under law. Without it, the communities where we work and live are less prosperous, and so are the customers we serve.
If our civil justice system is any indication, however, America isn’t living up to that promise, and we are all suffering the consequences.
Every day, problems that have fundamentally legal solutions—like a debt collector wrongfully garnishing hard-earned wages—derail the lives of people who are already struggling to make ends meet. Too often it happens because they don’t know their rights or can’t get legal help or information. In three out of four state civil court cases today, one or both parties are without legal representation, tipping the scales of justice toward those who can afford an attorney.
The results are devastating: Families are wrongfully evicted from their homes, disaster survivors can’t get back on their feet, and veterans aren’t able to obtain benefits for mental and physical challenges. Millions of Americans lose civil cases every year simply because they can’t find their way through the maze that is the U.S. civil court system.
Corporations have a responsibility to the communities they serve. Providing pro bono legal assistance is one piece of a patchwork of solutions to the current crisis of civil injustice. At Amazon, we‘re partnering with a variety of nonprofits and law firms to expand the efforts of our in-house lawyers to represent clients in need. In Seattle, for example, we are building shelter space in one of our new downtown Seattle offices for Mary’s Place, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting families experiencing homelessness, which will include a pro bono legal clinic to provide legal help to families staying in the shelter. This effort aligns with Amazon’s broader corporate focus on alleviating homelessness to provide more consistent, regular support to those in immediate need, and meet the challenge of homelessness in innovative new ways.
But with an estimated 6,415 people in need per legal aid attorney in the U.S., there simply aren’t enough corporate lawyers to solve this crisis on a pro bono basis. That is why it’s critical to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which funds legal aid for Americans living in poverty. With the House of Representatives poised to pass a historic $135 million increase in LSC’s funding in this year’s budget, it will soon be up to the Senate to make this critical investment a reality.
It costs more to care for people after injustice occurs than it does to ensure equal access to justice, so investing in the expansion of civil justice yields a real return on investment. In Alabama, every $1 of investments in civil legal aid yielded $11.95 in immediate and long-term benefits, such as lowering foreclosure and eviction costs for the government and homeowners. Florida tells a similar story: Every dollar spent on legal aid generated more than $7 in similar economic benefits.
Beyond funding, addressing the root causes of our civil justice crisis will require collaboration between the public and private sectors. Until recently, Washington state’s eviction code allowed landlords to kick tenants out of their homes and onto the streets with just three days’ notice for being late on their monthly rent. The code, which hadn’t been updated in more than 40 years, stacked the deck against tenants who couldn’t afford legal representation. Half of these evictions resulted in a default judgment because tenants didn’t—or couldn’t—contest the eviction in court.
Homelessness in the U.S. has been increasing, despite a tight labor market. In Washington, it’s clear our outdated eviction laws have contributed to the prblem. When Washington’s state legislature began reviewing these laws this year, I partnered with general counsel and chief legal officers from some of the state’s most important employers, including Starbucks, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, and Expedia, to successfully encourage common sense reforms of Washington’s eviction code. The package of reforms, which among other factors extended the eviction notice deadline to 14 days, was signed into law in May.
When businesses, government, the courts, legal aid, and community partners work together, it’s possible to create a continuum of services to offer appropriate help that makes justice for all possible. With simplified paperwork, clearer court processes, and better access to legal self-help technology, people can get the information they need and handle some problems themselves, without having to seek advice or representation from a lawyer in the first place. States and cities must also consider appropriate legislative solutions, like we saw in Washington state, to break down needless barriers to justice.
The inequities plaguing our country’s civil justice system should transcend any partisan divide. All parties should agree—as do some of the country’s biggest and most successful corporations—that every American, regardless of economic status or zip code, deserves access to legal help. The private and public sectors need to work together to fix the broken civil justice system and ensure justice for all.