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Resolution to close Supreme Court doors attracts discussion about access to justice symbolism

A small decision, no doubt made with best intent.  What are the larger implications moving forward?  Read Philip Kenicott’s Washington Post article here.

Roadmap to Justice White Paper now available for download

Please take a moment to download the recently issued white paper by Deborah L. Rhode and Dmitry Bam.  It explores the gap between principle and practice concerning access to justice, and what should be done to address it.

Download the RTJ White Paper here.

Gillian Hadfield on making Access to Justice more affordable in the US

Read her editorial here in the Washington Post.

Lawrence Tribe to take new Access to Justice post at DOJ

Prominent Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe will join the Justice Department to lead an effort focused on increasing legal access for the poor.

Tribe, 68, long viewed as a contender for a Supreme Court nomination in a Democratic administration, will serve as a senior counselor for access to justice.

Read the Washington Post coverage of the move here.

SCOTUS to hear case examining civil lawsuit immunity of accused war criminals now living in the US

San Francisco based Center for Justice and Accountability is the human rights advocacy organization arguing the case.  Read the New York Times coverage of the case here.

Budget cuts somewhere endanger access to justice everywhere

“Budget cuts have left citizens without adequate access to the Iowa Courts,” concludes Chief Justice Marsha Ternus in her recent address on the state of the judiciary in Iowa.  This news, like the news in many other states, is not surprising  given the current economic conditions.  Similar cuts to state court budgets are taking place throughout the country, with new reports coming out of Georgia and West Virginia in the last few weeks alone.

These cuts are deepening America’s justice gap, often under the public’s radar.  Not only are the courts often politically weaker than their legislative and executive counterparts and are less able to fend off these cuts, but citizens rarely appreciate the importance of the justice system to their everyday lives; that is, until they are forced
to turn to the courts for help.  People believe (rightly, in some ways, but wrongly, in many others) that there is too much litigation going on anyway, so cuts to court budgets are accepted, or largely ignored.  The current economic climate requires particular urgency to fix the unequal access to justice that exists in America today, and
its particularly important to educate the public about the effect these cuts are having.

Opinion piece on the importance of public defender staffing in misdemeanor courts

Aram James, a retired Santa Clara County public defender, weighs in here (San Jose Mercury News 1/6/10).

“Poison Pill” Restrictions on LSC Could See Rollback in 2010 Senate Appropriations Bill

While Congress’s attention continues to focus on the economy and health care reform, an important provision in Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations bill for FY 2010 will repeal the onerous “poison pill” restrictions on Legal Services Corporation grantees.  LSC is the largest civil legal aid provider in the United States, but ever since the Gingrich Congress, LSC grantees have been prohibited from using some of the most effective tools when representing their clients, such as claiming and retaining attorneys’ fees and participating in class actions.  Since at least 1996, access to legal assistance was severely restricted for certain low-income populations and numerous administrative burdens were imposed on LSC recipients and their clients.

But perhaps most significant, these restrictions were made applicable not just to activities supported by funds appropriated by Congress, but were applied to all of an LSC grantee’s activities, regardless of the source of the funds that supported them.  In other words, a “poison pill” restriction applied the entire set of substantive restrictions to all the money that a legal services program received from state and local governments, private donors, and IOLTA once the program receives its first dollar of funds from LSC.  These non-federal funds often account for more than half of an LSC grantees’ total funds.

Language in the Senate-passed CJS Appropriations bill would roll back this non-federal funds restriction.  This will allow LSC grantees to use their non-federal dollars to participate in most of the currently restricted activities, although the prohibition on LSC grantees participating in abortion-related litigation and representing prisoners will remain in place.

This is an important change, and not only because it will permit legal service providers to serve more of the people who need their aid.  Estimates show that four out of five poor people cannot get their legal needs met, and that there is one lawyer for approximately every eight thousand poor people, and this fairly minor provision is surely not a panacea to this nation’s justice-gap maladies.  But this change is important because it signals a change in Congressional attitude towards legal aid and fosters renewed hope that bigger changes are coming.  Until then, we should take some joy in small victories.

Repairing our Broken Justice System

From earlier this fall, in case you may have missed this piece from  Gara LaMarche at The Nation.

We Must Do Better

Deborah Rhode & James Sokolove / Special to The National Law Journal

(original available here)

December 22, 2008


Give us your poor, but only on the holidays. This Thanksgiving, droves of well-meaning volunteers had to be turned away in some affluent communities when there weren’t enough poor diners. On that day, but that day only, there were no shortages of contributions. The back-to-back holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas do temporarily turn our attention to the poor.

Yet all too often, the needs of America’s some 37 million poor people remain out of sight and out of mind. And the social activism of the rest of us too often addresses symptoms rather than sources of the problem. As lawyers, we are especially troubled by our inability to make legal assistance a more central part of the solution.

“Equal Justice Under Law” is what we put on courthouse doors. It comes nowhere close to describing what goes on inside them. In law, as in life, the haves come out ahead. State and national surveys consistently find that fewer than four-fifths of the civil legal needs of low-income individuals, and two- to three-fifths of the needs of middle-income households, remain unmet. Although indigent criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled to legal representation, crushing caseloads and declining budgets have made effective assistance a statistical impossibility. The time spent by free legal defenders on some felony cases is less than the average American spends showering before work.

Part of the problem is that most of the public has no sense of how serious the problem is. Four-fifths of Americans believe, incorrectly, that the poor have a right to counsel in civil cases. During the recent presidential campaign, talk of unmet legal needs was notable for its absence. The price is paid in human misery. Domestic violence victims lack protective orders, disabled children cannot get educational assistance, elderly patients cannot collect health benefits. The list is long, the costs are incalculable, and both are certain to increase in the current economic crisis.

Addressing basic legal needs

The new administration should be at the forefront of addressing these needs and joining a national consortium to build a “roadmap to justice.” The objective should be to guarantee all individuals the right to assistance for fundamental legal needs and to ensure that such assistance meets reasonable standards of effectiveness. To that end, we need to both increase resources and reduce costs.

Money may not be the root of all evil in our justice system, but it is surely responsible for part of it. Less than 1% of the nation’s expenditures on legal services goes to civil legal assistance for the poor, and fees for indigent criminal cases are capped at ludicrously inadequate levels. We can and must do better.

Not all of the funding need comes from strapped federal, state or local budgets. Other sources might be surcharges on court filing fees or some minimum required contribution of time or money from lawyers. Although some attorneys are already generous, the profession’s average “pro bono” contribution is estimated at only about a half-hour a week and half a dollar a day. Surely one of the nation’s highest paying occupations could afford more.

At the very least, attorneys could be required to report their charitable contributions, and large government and corporate clients could select only counsel who meet the bar’s own pro bono ethical standards.

More access

A second reform strategy is to provide more efficient and accessible dispute resolution structures. Laws and procedures should be simplified, and more low-cost assistance should be available to permit individuals to address routine needs themselves.

User-friendly courthouse hours and self-help centers, and online resources, are part of the answer. Bar prohibitions on legal advice from qualified nonlawyers should be relaxed. The vast majority of other nations allow such assistance, and no evidence suggests that it has been unsatisfactory.

It is a shameful irony that the nation with the world’s largest concentration of lawyers does such an abysmal job of making legal assistance available to those who need it most. Occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas should remind us that the poor need more than holiday handouts. They need legal tools to help themselves and to secure fundamental rights that are now available in theory but inaccessible in practice.

Deborah L. Rhode, a professor of law and the director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, and James Sokolove, founder of The Law Offices of James Sokolove, have created the Roadmap to Justice Project, a national effort to chart key policy priorities in enhancing access to justice by those who need it most.

Equal justice under the law is one of America’s most proudly proclaimed legal principles, but it comes nowhere close to describing the justice system in practice.