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Associate Attorney General West Delivers Remarks at the Legal Services Corporation 40th Anniversary Kick-off Conference


United States

Thank you, John, not only for that kind introduction but also for your exemplary leadership as chair of the LSC Board. LSC really exemplifies that spirit Attorney General Robert Kennedy used to talk about – that as lawyers, we have an obligation to enlist our skills and ourselves in engagements that reach beyond the horizons of our parochial legal practices. And over the last five-and-a-half years I’ve served in this Administration, I’ve been fortunate to get to know John and LSC President Jim Sandman, and I know the movement for expanding access to justice in this country is better and stronger because they’re helping to lead this effort, so my thanks to them.

You’re going to hear from some remarkable legal practitioners throughout the afternoon, and I don’t want to delay that, so I’ll be brief. Let me begin by saying thanks – thanks to all of you, not just for being here but for what you do when you’re not here. Thank you for being champions for the expansion of legal aid. You are leaders from the private and non-profit sectors; from the philanthropic and academic communities. You come from local and state governments, as well as all three branches of the federal government.

You are diverse in your backgrounds and geographic origins, but what binds you together is a conviction: A conviction that the promises of the Bill of Rights are more than fading ink on aging parchment paper.

It’s because of your conviction that those of us who serve at the Department of Justice are so pleased to be your partners in this important work. As some of you know, today is my last day at the Department of Justice. And I think it’s fitting that I’m spending part of it here with you, talking about these issues. Back in 2009, when I had just begun my service in this Administration as head of the Civil Division, one of my first major speeches was about expanding access to civil legal aid. It was in Chicago, at the ABA summer meeting, and back then I talked about how if access to justice means anything, it means access to affordable legal services.

In the five years since that speech, this issue has been high on Attorney General Holder’s and my priority list. Indeed, early in his tenure, the Attorney General launched the Access to Justice Initiative -- the only Executive Branch office dedicated to expanding access to civil legal aid and improving criminal indigent defense. And since its inception, Access to Justice (or “ATJ,” as we affectionately call it), has shined a spotlight on this issue by building partnerships and engaging in creative ways that have helped us to make a difference.

Currently led by Karen Lash and Maha Jweied, ATJ has worked with members of the international community to highlight the critical role of legal aid in effective justice systems; it’s helped DOJ articulate in court filings and elsewhere the need for better funding of indigent defense systems here at home; and it’s helped the Department forge a vibrant and productive dialogue with the indigent defense and public defender communities.

But for all of that, I want to take just a moment to highlight two ways I think ATJ has been instrumental in creating a profound and long-lasting effort.

The first is LAIR: the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. Along with Tonya Robinson and now Roy Austin at the White House Domestic Policy Council, I have been privileged to serve as co-chair of LAIR. Through that effort, 18 federal partners, including LSC -- Jim, thank you for your invaluable support -- are finding new and innovative ways to provide better access to health services, housing, education, employment, family stability and community well-being by enlisting legal aid. You see, we know that legal aid advances the missions of many federal agencies, and ATJ has worked with folks at the Domestic Policy Council to turn that knowledge into valuable interagency partnerships.

So, for example, the Department of Labor knows that building legal services into its job-training programs for people with criminal records -- whether to get a driver’s license reinstated or rap sheet errors corrected – those services can make the crucial difference between getting a job and a second chance, or returning to incarceration. So Labor is committed to integrating into its grant programs and policy initiatives legal aid among the supportive services needed for an individual’s successful reentry into society.

Or take Health and Human Services. Those folks know that researchers have found that integrating legal services into the health care setting can drive down health care costs, and positively impact individual and population health. That’s why the Health Resources and Services Administration supports its health centers in building partnerships with local legal aid programs.

There’s also the VA, which engaged in their own national survey, documenting that legal aid is among the top unmet needs of homeless veterans -- and it set out to meet those needs through their Supportive Services for Veterans Families program.

And at DOJ, we know that studies show that civil legal aid is possibly the most effective strategy for helping survivors break the cycle of domestic violence, which is why the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women funds civil legal aid.

So LAIR has proven to be an extremely effective approach to expanding access to needed legal aid. But there’s another effort that ATJ has helped promote that will also make a difference in lives across the country.

Recently, we’ve negotiated some pretty larges resolutions with major financial institutions. Attorney General Madigan – who you will hear from shortly – was one of the state AGs who has been an important partner in that effort. And when we got down to negotiating the consumer relief package – billions of dollars in measures designed to help rectify some of the harm caused by the financial crisis – I asked ATJ for creative ways in which we could ensure homeowners and consumer victims had access to affordable legal aid to help them stay in their homes.

Just imagine how much pain could have been avoided had folks had access to affordable, legal assistance at the height of the financial crisis.

And ATJ came back with an idea to help shore up the state-based IOLTA’s, or Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, that had been severely depleted during the crisis. And as folks here already know, IOLTA organizations are among the largest sources of non -governmental funding to increase access to justice for low-income people. So, as a result, the last two major settlements, with Citigroup and Bank of America, both include significant donations from those banks to state-based IOLTAs.

The funding for legal aid in those two bank settlements totals a minimum of $45 million, and we know those funds will be well spent preventing wrongful foreclosures and in providing legal help related to community redevelopment, in furtherance of those settlements.

And the good news is the ATJ team at the Justice Department is constantly looking for opportunities like that to make a difference.

So let me close where I began: by thanking all of you for your dedication to this work.

When a domestic violence survivor needs a protective order, or an elder suffering abuse needs help to turn pain into legal protection, or a formerly incarcerated individual is trying to reclaim the rights of citizenship with responsibility and dignity, you are the ones they turn to. You are the ones who stand up for those who often work the hardest, but have the least; who know not the mainstream but life’s margins. You can make the persuasive arguments in the halls of power for those who find no voice there.

It’s not easy, and the need is greater than our ability to meet it fully. But it is work you continue to do because it’s so central to our aspiration of becoming a More Perfect Union. And for that unwavering commitment I thank you, I salute you, and I will always be proud to work with you.

Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated May 4, 2016