Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, John [Levi], for those kind words—and for your outstanding leadership as Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). I also want to recognize LSC’s president, Jim Sandman, for his exceptional work serving this vital cause. And I want to thank everyone here today, along with your colleagues and fellow advocates around the country, for your unshakeable commitment to this nation’s bedrock principle of equal justice under law.
Since its inception more than 40 years ago, the Legal Services Corporation has embraced and defended the national ideal of equal justice for all Americans. It has grown to become the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income individuals. And through its grants to legal services providers, its technical assistance and training, and its partnerships with public agencies, private businesses, and nonprofit foundations, LSC has led a fight for inclusion and opportunity that has strengthened this nation and revitalized its promise of opportunity. On every issue—from family law to consumer rights, from housing policy to veterans’ affairs—you stand as guardians of justice, defenders of fairness, and indispensable partners for all those whom the law protects and empowers.
Every year, as many as half of all American households confront a legal issue that has the potential to dramatically affect their lives—from veterans threatened with eviction, to students faced with suspension or expulsion under well-intentioned but ultimately misguided zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, to individuals across the country living with violent domestic abuse. Most of these individuals don’t realize that there may be legal options available to them. And in too many cases, they are forced to navigate complex issues without the assistance, advice and expertise that talented professionals like you can provide. As a result, too many people find themselves falling into poverty, or being trapped there; facing dangerous and costly health challenges; or becoming locked in a cycle of criminality and incarceration that devastates families and degrades communities.
That’s why the work of ensuring meaningful access to justice is more than a professional responsibility—it is a moral obligation, and a national commitment, entrusted to every individual with the tools to do their part. With the help of the men and women in this room, we can create real opportunities for Americans to climb out of violent situations, out of economic hardship and out of legal distress. In doing so, we will not only change individual lives for the better, but also transform entire communities and elevate our country as a whole. For my colleagues at every level of the U.S. Department of Justice—and for me, personally—this mission is a top priority.
I am proud to say that, through President Obama’s leadership, this administration has made groundbreaking strides. As part of the landmark Access to Justice Initiative I launched in 2010—and under the guidance of its outstanding director, Lisa Foster and her remarkable team—we’re working side-by-side with state, local, tribal and federal officials, as well as an extensive network of nonprofit and private-sector partners, to extend quality legal representation to low-income Americans. We’re acting to improve accessibility through new policies and practices; to promote simpler solutions to common legal problems; and to expand research into innovative strategies that could narrow and close a justice gap that has persisted for far too many, and far too long. We are striving every day to build on the gains we have made and to ensure that they are made permanent for every generation to come.
At the center of these efforts is the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, or LAIR, led by Associate Attorney General [Stuart] Delery and Director Roy Austin of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity. As many of you know, LAIR brings together 18 federal agencies in collaboration with the White House Domestic Policy Council to evaluate current programs and practices and improve outcomes in a wide array of fields—including health services, housing, and education; employment, family stability and community well-being.
LAIR is making significant contributions, from new training and technical assistance opportunities to innovative and exciting research initiatives. It has made dozens of presentations to federal agency colleagues and grantees and members of the civil legal aid community to highlight how legal aid can advance federal priorities. And it has built up the Access to Justice Toolkit—a dynamic online resource providing a wealth of information about civil legal services to those who need it most. Just this morning, we added three new case studies to the Toolkit that illuminate how civil legal aid can support our efforts to keep Americans working, to bolster tribal nations, and to prevent elder abuse. Thanks to LAIR’s extraordinary, internationally-recognized work, more than two dozen federal grants have been clarified to allow and include legal services.
For example, part of the Department of Health and Human Services—the Health Resources and Services Administration—recently clarified that the community health centers they fund can now provide civil legal aid as part of a range of “enabling services” to the individuals who rely on them—because we recognize that, while an Emergency Room doctor can treat a child’s asthma attack, her family needs a lawyer to address the housing conditions that are making her sick. Through the Department of Labor, individuals with criminal records can now receive legal services as a component of the department’s job-training initiatives—because we understand that, even for a person with the best of intentions, basic legal challenges like reinstating a driver’s license or correcting errors in a criminal record can pose insurmountable obstacles to getting a new job, providing for a family, and building a better life. With efforts like these, we are looking beyond immediate challenges to find ways in which integrating legal services can improve long-term outcomes.
Even beyond LAIR’s wide-ranging efforts, the Department of Justice has incorporated civil legal aid and assistance into additional aspects of our work. As part of the record-setting settlements we reached with financial institutions in the wake of the financial and housing crises of 2008, we negotiated consumer-relief packages to help homeowners and victimized consumers find the affordable legal aid they needed to stay in their homes. For example, under last year’s settlements with Citigroup and Bank of America, we were able to obtain at least $45 million in donations to state-based Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, or IOLTAs, to be used for community redevelopment and foreclosure prevention legal assistance.
It is my hope that these kinds of creative advances will serve as models for future innovations—both by the Justice Department and by others. With 61 million Americans eligible and in need of civil legal assistance, we must continue to think creatively, and expand our focus, in order to build on the progress we have made. And it is clear that additional resources are badly needed.
That’s why this administration—and the Justice Department in particular—is seeking new funds to extend our commitment to civil legal aid. And that’s why I’m calling on Congress to approve our 2016 budget request for a brand-new $5 million competitive grant program to support the creation of integrated civil legal aid delivery systems across the country, and nearly $3 million to build the department’s capacity for research and data collection related to civil legal aid. I am also calling on Congress to allocate $452 million to the Legal Services Corporation for Fiscal Year 2016, as the President’s budget requests—an increase of more than 20 percent over the 2015 appropriation. And I’m urging them to lift onerous restrictions that prevent LSC lawyers from filing class action lawsuits – and that apply obstructive guidelines to all funds, including private funds, raised by LSC grantees.
These resources are vital. Despite increased demand for its services, funding for the Legal Services Corporation is roughly the same today as it was more than two decades ago. And in real terms, LSC has suffered from a 41 percent decrease in its spending power over this time. For an organization that is animated by a mission that lies at the core of our national character, this is an unacceptable status quo. While even the substantial increase I have called for today will not satisfy the extensive need for legal services nationwide, it will serve as an acknowledgement that civil legal aid is a core concern—and a bipartisan priority—for the federal government of the United States.
After all, veterans in need of housing assistance should be a concern for Democrats and Republicans alike, and families in search of help for a sick child are not interested in party lines. We should all recognize that extending them a helping hand is a way of investing in ourselves and in our country—in our neighbors, our relatives, and our friends. It’s a way of adhering to the principles that animate this nation and the values that will shape our future. And ultimately, it’s about working as one people, united in an unwavering pursuit of the more just society that all Americans deserve.
I am proud that, in the face of insufficient funding and diminished resources, attorneys throughout the Obama Administration are giving their own time and energy to advance access to justice. Thanks to the Justice Department’s Pro Bono Program Director Laura Klein and the broad and enthusiastic support of our partners, no fewer than 30 federal agencies currently have policies encouraging their lawyers to do pro bono work. The program is already operating in cities across the country, including San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., with a statewide initiative in Colorado. And in October, with the Pro Bono Program and the Access to Justices Initiative, I announced a change to the department’s Pro Bono Policy in order to allow any DOJ employee to take up to 30 hours of administrative leave for pro bono work like court appearances and mediations that take place during work hours. Today, I call on state attorneys general across the nation to match our commitment, so that men and women in their communities can have the benefit of America’s finest lawyers and public servants—no matter who they are or where they live. As I have said before, I believe that every legal professional must use his or her skills not simply to make a living, but to make a difference.
That is the fundamental promise of this gathering, and it is why you are here today—to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves; to defend those who are defenseless; and to support those who cannot stand alone. Whether they are rich or poor, young or old, black or white, famous or unknown, every person in this country deserves equality under the law and fair treatment in legal matters. It is essential that all of us here today and all of our allies nationwide, continue to fulfill that promise; continue to fight for those values; and continue to strive for justice.
I know that this work will not be easy. But as I look around this room—at this gathering of committed partners, passionate advocates, and dedicated legal professionals—I cannot help but feel optimistic about all that we can accomplish together. I want you to know that, as you go about your mission, you not only have the gratitude of this administration, this Department of Justice, and this Attorney General—you have our enthusiastic partnership and our full support. As I prepare to begin a new chapter in my own professional life, I will remain committed to this cause, to your work, and to our common effort in service of our shared ideals. I look forward to all that we will accomplish together in the days and years ahead, and I urge you to keep up the outstanding work.