You have asked me to summarize in under ten minutes the entire history of civil legal aid and civil legal services to the poor since the beginning of recorded history. I hope in this undertaking not to slight the substantial contributions of many of this room. Legal aid to the poor for all but the last fifty years has been almost exclusively the responsibility of the private bar. Dating back to at least the fourteenth century it was understood that in exchange for the privilege of being a compensated advocate in court, a lawyer had the responsibility to devote some time to those who could not pay. This English common law tradition was transplanted in the American colonies and continues today. In addition to these pro bono efforts, in the late nineteenth century, legal aid offices with full-time lawyers, paid for through charitable contributions, opened in many American cities. In any society that permits personal wealth there will always be gradations thereof, and those citizens with the latest wealth will inevitably be regarded as poor. In a society of laws, we require that everyone accept where they temporarily find themselves on the economic ladder of life even as they work within our society to improve their lot. However, we must never expect the poor to tolerate the inability to enjoy equal treatment under the law. “Nothing,” wrote Reginald Heber Smith, “rankles more in the human heart than a brooding sense of injustice. . . .[I]njustice makes us want to pull things down
The Honorable Howard Dana,
Legal Aid and Legal Services: An Overview,
Me. L. Rev.
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