The US is finally having a proper grassroots movement forming around the right to healthcare. As Europeans, this whole debacle seems silly, as we nationalized our healthcare systems decades ago. It is most peculiar that the US still has not followed suit, as the only “Western” country without a proper National Health Service (NHS). Healthcare is – or should be – a basic civil and human right.
But I bid thee, my dear Norwegians, to take a critical look at our own country’s lack of protection of basic human rights, such as the right to housing, right not to starve etc., rights that are covered IN THEORY, but that are still hidden behind means–testing and sometimes excruciatingly strict bureaucracy and severely underfunded services.
But my evil socialist agenda aside, I wish to highlight a specific right that I was surprised to realise we have not properly covered: the right to legal representation.
“Now, wait,” you might say. “We absoLUTELY have a right to legal representation. You CANNOT be denied a lawyer, and in some cases the state will even pay for one.”
Well, yes, but no. Lawyers are only provided free of charge by the state in CRIMINAL cases and some isolated civil cases, and although no one can DENY you legal counsel in civil cases, that does not do jack shit if you cannot afford it.
Now, to quote the ever-illustrious dunker-on-students, Benjamin “Big-Brain” Shapiro: “That sounds more like a you problem.” Let me explain why it is not.
A Handicapped Legal System
I have studied a bit of law in the past, and one of the first things we were taught was that one of the most important components of a healthy legal system is case and law testing through the legal system itself. What do I mean by that? Well, any given law that is passed by the parliament might later be discovered to be in conflict with other established laws, or with the Norwegian Constitution, or with the European constitution, etc.
(On a side note, the Norwegian word for parliament can be translated as “the Big Thing”, which I find amusing)
Sometimes, the Norwegian Supreme Court have even overturned long established law on the basis of “not being how we think and work as a society anymore” (see “Husmordommen” (i.e. the “stay-at-home-mom” verdict).
Even though every new law is double-, triple- and quadruple-checked for inconsistencies with both existing law and current social moral standards and customs, things like this happens every now–and–then, and the very right to test a case before the courts is an important safety check for any legal system.
And it’s not like these – admittedly rare – exceptions are the only reason to test legal disputes before the courts. Law is complicated and – at times – messy, and a whole lot of legal issues are not clear at all before a court has made a ruling on them. I mean, why would we even need lawyers if they were…
This is doubly important in “common law” systems such as the Norwegian legal system, where published judicial opinions are of primary importance, as opposed to “civil law” systems where codified statutes dominate.
To explain this in short, Norwegian law is only partially dictated by the written laws themselves – you know, the ones that parliament passes. “The law”, as it actually functions in practice, is a mixture of written law, court rulings, “unwritten” laws (such as certain customs) and a bunch of other complicated stuff, all weighted differently depending on the legal issue / area at hand. The Norwegian written law is not meant to be all-encompassing; it is meant to be supplemented or “filled in” by other stuff. For example, if there is not currently a law for some specific legal issue, the courts might decide to use analogous laws to settle a given dispute.
As you might be able to see, in such a system (which is the better system, by the way), it is ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL to try cases before the courts. Not only for the benefit of whomever has potentially been legally screwed with, but also for the health of the legal system itself.
For criminal cases, the Norwegian system is working great (to my knowledge, at least). But what about civil cases?
Well, here is where our system is – in my opinion – severely handicapped.
Because legal counsel cost money, and if a private person or company is exploiting or fucking with you, you can end up with little to no legal recourse – and thus, the legal issues in question are not tried and expanded upon by the courts.
And yes, there are firms that take pro bono civil cases, and charity services that offer free legal services too, but these are not enough BY FAR to cover all legal needs.
As an example, students (and the poor, but I am repeating myself) are particularly exposed to exploitation by private landlords. They often do not know their rights and are usually subjected to a very asymmetrical power relation with a landlord – who might not even themselves know what their own duties are and what rights their tenants have, if they care at all.
I do not have enough toes and fingers to count all the people I personally know who have felt exploited by their landlords. Now, I doubt all of these people have had their legal rights infringed upon, but my point is that it would be extremely difficult for them to even KNOW whether they have a case or not. And if they somehow find out that they have, they might neither have the money, the time, nor the energy to fight it when they are up against someone who have money to throw at a lawyer.
And tenant / landlord disputes are not the only area ripe for exploitation. If you do not have money to toss around, you cannot sue your children’s school for negligence if your kid is not helped when bullied to the point of developing actual PTSD (this has happened. To a disturbing degree). You cannot sue your boss for transphobic discrimination. You cannot sue the state when you are denied the welfare you need to survive.
As previously mentioned, YES, there ARE some available resources for those who cannot afford representation in civil cases, but they are not freely available to everyone.
So, in danger of going full socialist propagandist on y’all, we effectively have a civil legal system in our Great Nation of Norway™ that is only freely accessible to people with money. Where the ones without can be (and too often are) bullied into submission. Where the number of cases that are tried and tested before the courts are heavily skewed in favour of the upper classes, which then again skews our entire legal system away from the interests and needs of the disenfranchised. We effectively have a two-tiered (civil) legal system.
So, what is the solution, then? Well, I am glad I asked.
We nationalise our legal system. We nationalise legal representation. We nationalise lawyers.
National Legal Service (NHL)
Now, I am only spit balling here, of course, but why not establish an NLS after the model of our NHS?
We have a national health service here in Norway that works reasonably well. Much better BY FAR than whatever the fuck the Americans are mucking around with, at least.
We have general practitioners that we get to choose for ourselves, we pay a small amount for each visit and for the medication we need – up to a certain limit where the state takes over and pays it all from then on. We all have free access to health care, and – although mistakes and negligence do happen – we not only get the help we need when needed, we also get the reassurance of knowing we are not sick when we are not.
See, I do not know jack-shit about medicine, and it would take a tremendous amount of research as well as time and energy that I do not have to find out what kind of ailments I might have or not have if I feel sick.
In our current health care system, if I feel sick, I can book a visit with my doctor to consult with him about my health, and he will be all, like, “nah, dude, you have a bit of an iron deficiency, so adjust your diet in such-and-such way or take this-and-this supplement and you’ll feel great.” Or, he might go all “holy SHIT, dude, you might have cancer! I’ll send you over to a specialist to be sure, but don’t worry. The NHS has got you covered 😉”.
Well, could we not adopt something similar for our legal system too?
If I am in a conflict with my landlord about whatever, I could go to my general legal practitioner (hey! GP works for this too!) and ask whether or not there is a legal issue. And he might be all “Nah, dude, your landlord is a bit of a dick, but there is no actual legal issue here.” And I’ll be all “Ah, crap. Well, at least I now know and can adjust.” OR, my GP might scream “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK! You’re being exploited AF, fam, but don’t worry. I’ll take it from here.”
Now imagine this on a larger scale; where, if you feel like your rights are being trampled upon, you can consult with a legal GP who will at least tell you whether you have a case or not; and where, if you do, you get to try it before the court without needing to expend a tremendous amount of research and time and energy and money to get there.
Now, there are absolutely some kinks to work out in order to expand our welfare system to include a National Legal Service.
How do we pay for it? Taxes. That’s what we do for our NHS, and although many people are LOATH to pay higher taxes, I think the majority of the population might somewhat easily take the trade for higher legal security and protection. We already do it for our NHS. Most sensible people are willing to pay higher taxes to make sure we have free access to health care in case we need it. For us Europeans, it seems absolutely ridiculous that Americans can go bankrupt from being sick (or, you know, have their entire lives ruined for lack of access to health care, I mean, WTF?!), but we basically allow for the same to happen when it comes to legal issues. Legal issues that can take such a toll on people that they develop psychological or health issues that has to be paid for anyway, generally by the state.
What about lawyers? They probably will not like being nationalised? Well, first of all, fuck’em! If they are being that difficult and selfish, then they can take a time-out in the corner until they realise that we live in a society. Second of all, it’s not like doctors are being underpaid, and like there is no private health sector where you can throw money at doctors to get better and quicker services.
Do we even have enough lawyers to deal with the increased onslaught of legal cases and consultations? Well, probably not, to be honest, but I imagine similar arguments were used when European NHSs were becoming a thing. The solution might be to reform the education system for legal people so we can end up with a similar model to the NHS, with legal analogues to nurses, GPs and specialists, and a system that is set up to triage cases so as to make it more efficient and as well as more accessible. I imagine that an NLS might also increase the public’s trust in and respect of lawyers, which again might increase the profession’s attractiveness. We all know “evil lawyer” jokes, but I do not think I have ever heard an “evil doctor” joke. And if these things are not enough to meet the demand, then let our politicians do their fucking job and find a way to incentivise or facilitate legal education.
There are probably other issues too that I have not thought of, but whatever they might be, I do not believe they can ever excuse not assuring an ACTUAL (and not just theoretical) right to legal representation and legal security.
And as a bonus, as I have already hinted to, a civil right to legal counsel would help to strengthen our other rights too – including, but not limited to, healthcare and welfare rights – as you would have greater access to help if you are being screwed over.
And, if I still have not convinced you, the American Bar Association unanimously voted years ago to look into what they call Civil Gideon, or National Right to Civil Counsel. There’s a whole movement over there, spearheaded by lawyers of all people. Imagine if THE AMERICANS end up with better legal rights than the Bastion of Perfection™ that is Norway.
What a national embarrassment that would be.
Written by Emil Olai