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Executive Summary: Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable 2023 Report

Access to Justice in Federal Administrative Proceedings: Nonlawyer Assistance and Other Strategies

Federal administrative proceedings are often the gateway to accessing public benefits, protecting basic rights, and addressing discrimination. The outcomes of these proceedings can and do have a substantial impact on people’s lives. A misunderstood form or process, a missed deadline, or the inability to compile and introduce the correct background materials could mean losing access to a critical program that provides basic needs, like housing or food security. Proper functioning of these proceedings, and ease of navigating them, is also essential to the federal government’s ability to achieve its policy goals. Initiatives and programs can have their intended impact only if those intended to benefit from the programs are able to access them. This year, as reflected in this report, LAIR conducted a targeted review of the challenges people experience in federal administrative proceedings and identified overarching strategies to address these challenges.

This Report recognizes that the challenges people experience in federal administrative proceedings mirror some of the same core access to justice issues that people experience across justice systems, while they manifest differently based on certain structural characteristics of administrative proceedings. People without legal help encounter difficulty accessing relevant and accurate information on proceedings, program eligibility, and information on how to correctly complete forms and which documents to submit. People’s ability to navigate administrative proceedings is also hindered when agency communications and guidance are not in plain language, a challenge that is further exacerbated for people who have limited proficiency in English or a disability.

These challenges can compound due to the impact of trauma related to poverty, mental exhaustion, and stigma associated with securing rights or benefits through administrative proceedings. Lastly, while the increased reliance on digital technology, such as online forms and portals for information submissions and virtual hearings, can increase access for many, it also creates additional barriers for people who cannot utilize such technology due to a lack of connectivity or digital skills.

To help address these challenges, LAIR identifies two overarching strategies:

  1. Continue to develop and implement people-centered simplification strategies in administrative proceedings, and
  2. Increase representation and assistance by lawyers and nonlawyers for people in administrative proceedings.

The first prong builds on LAIR’s 2022 work on people-centered simplification of government forms, processes, and language as the core strategy to increase people’s access to government programs, reducing the need for legal help. These strategies, such as simplifying government forms, using plain language, and providing self-help information, are also central to addressing the challenges that people experience in federal administrative proceedings.

The second prong represents this Report’s spotlight on the importance of legal representation and assistance through lawyers, nonlawyers, or agency ombuds offices. In many instances, process simplification may not fully eliminate the need for assistance for people to effectively access government programs and obtain just outcomes.

The Report notes that, while lawyers continue to be the primary source of legal assistance, federal agencies generally permit, and sometimes fund, nonlawyers to help meet the need for assistance in administrative proceedings. The Report provides examples of LAIR agency activities supporting nonlawyer assistance and offers ways that agencies can make assistance available to more people, such as by addressing any barriers to accreditation, providing clear guidance on the allowability of nonlawyers, conducting targeted outreach, providing training resources, and funding nonlawyer programs alongside legal service programs.

In addition to assistance from lawyers and nonlawyers, the Report identifies ombuds offices that provide direct assistance to the public as another promising avenue for increasing access to justice in administrative proceedings. It recommends that agencies raise the profiles and capacity of these offices for the public to utilize their services.

Finally, the Report shares LAIR agencies’ work supporting global efforts to advance access to justice in administrative programs and underscores the need to build an evidence base to better understand the impact of these access to justice interventions and help make federal administrative programs more effective.

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Updated December 11, 2023