It is time--long past time--for the United States to join the growing international consensus that words like “due process,” “fair hearing,” “equal protection of the laws,” and “equality before the law,” all express a universal principle--a right to equal justice to be enjoyed by everyone. And, as the European Court on Human Rights pointed out, if this right is to be “practical and effective,” and not merely “theoretical or illusory,” then for those unable to afford counsel, the right to equal justice must include the right to a lawyer supplied by government. Why is this so important? As the European Ministers said in 1978, it is “an essential feature of any democratic society.” Indeed, without this right a nation's poor people are less than full citizens and that nation is less than a true democracy. They cannot even enforce the other rights their votes may have won them in the legislatures. It is the failure of the United States' past we did not recognize this obvious truth, so deeply embedded in our national ideals, long ago. It is the tragedy of the present we remain insular and smug about our nation's superiority in all things related to “justice,” while millions of poor U.S. citizens are denied this precious right. It is the hope of the future the United States will finally open its eyes and embrace the “practical and effective” right to equal justice most Western democracies now guarantee. When that day comes--and it may come soon--millions of U.S. citizens will, for the first time, truly have their day in court.

The United States will never have adequate government funding of civil legal services unless, and until, there is an earth change in the nation's understanding of what constitutes adequate funding of this fundamental government function. This conference is so important to the United States because it gives us a chance to look at some comparable industrial democracies and how they have treated the goal of equal access to justice for their lower income citizens. I have studied the subject of equal access to justice for the poor for almost three decades and am delighted it finally has begun to arouse some interest in the United States.