Access to Justice: Strengthening Civil Legal Aid

April 24, 2012

Legal aid attorneys, pro bono partners from law firms, government leaders, judges, and advocates from around the country gathered at the White House earlier this month for a forum on “The State of Legal Assistance.”  Moderated by Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Chairman John Levi, the forum looked at the legal challenges faced by America’s most vulnerable groups, including veterans, low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

A 2009 LSC study(PDF) found that less than 20 percent of the legal problems experienced by poor people were addressed with the help of a private or legal aid lawyer.  At the forum, a panel of LSC attorneys spoke of the strains on their system in the wake of the country’s economic recession, and the hardships faced by those served by legal aid.

John Whitfield, Executive Director of Blue Ridge Legal Services in Harrisonburg, VA, noted that because of declining revenue, his rural program has lost 26 percent of its staff compared to the end of 2010.  Legal Aid Society of Cleveland Executive Director, Colleen Carter, remarked that her organization’s funding has decreased by 28 percent at the same time that the poverty population in the region has increased by 30 percent.  She observed that foreclosures in the area have impacted the rich and poor alike, and especially the working people in the community.  Legal aid services for many facing foreclosure have enabled them to keep their homes.

Speaking at the forum, President Barack Obama said that making civil legal assistance available to low-income Americans is “central to our notion of equal justice under the law.”

Attorney General Eric Holder also spoke about the importance of access to justice for all of America’s people:

“Particularly in this time of economic challenges – when funding for aid programs is limited, and government budgets are on the chopping block – the urgency of this crisis has been brought into stark focus. Fortunately, the leaders and advocates in this room have responded not with despair, but with resolve.  You’re stretching every dollar.  You’re seeking ways to amplify the impact of every resource we can bring to bear.  And I want you to know that this Administration stands ready to support your work in any way possible.” 

Attorney General Holder went on to note the importance of elevating, encouraging, and engaging in pro bono services.  And he expressed his support for President Obama’s budget which provides continued financial support for the Legal Services Corporation, and, “offers the assistance necessary to transform people’s lives and ensure that their rights are protected.” 

He highlighted the work of Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative on such issues as foreclosure mediation, promoting pro bono, and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and called on those present “to create and strengthen the state-level Access to Justice Commissions that have shown such remarkable progress.”

Statewide Access to Justice (ATJ) Commissions have been an important development over the last decade in the effort to close our nation’s civil-side justice gap.  Typically established by the state’s highest court in conjunction with state bar leadership, these formal Commissions are tasked with coordinating, expanding and improving state-level civil legal assistance.   About half of the states and the District of Columbia have active ATJ Commissions.  

To learn more about the Access to Justice Initiative, visit www.justice.gov/atj.

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