Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, Doug, for your commitment to increasing access to justice. And thank you Ed, for your leadership and partnership in this work.
I am also grateful to Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who exhibits a commitment to access to justice every single day, and for her participation in today’s convening.
The pediment on the Supreme Court building promises “Equal Justice Under Law.” But we all know that there cannot be equal justice unless there is equal access to justice. So, this body is charged with “increas[ing] the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status.”
This is a broad, but critical, mandate. And thanks to the varied domains and distinct expertise of Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR)’s 28 federal agency members, this Roundtable has unique tools and opportunities to dismantle barriers to justice.
In so doing, we can make advances in public safety, food security, housing, employment, and so much more.
We know that excessively complicated government forms, processes, and language can be major contributors to unequal justice in this country. You should not need a legal background to seek help from your government — nor to understand what your government is asking of you.
That is why we gathered last year to discuss the Roundtable’s work in examining the ways in which the federal agencies can simplify forms and processes.
LAIR created a “Simplification Roadmap” to solidify the principles of placing real people at the center of efforts to design programs and communications. While this benefits individuals, of course, it also helps ensure that government services have their intended reach and impact.
At last year’s gathering, we also heard about some of the thoughtful approaches that member agencies were taking to implement this principle to improve their own programs.
I want to briefly highlight two Justice Department initiatives that LAIR’s simplification work has motivated since we last met — both with outstanding leadership from the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ).
First, ATJ partnered with the Office of the Pardon Attorney to improve the form that individuals who have completed their federal sentence may use to petition for a Presidential pardon.
ATJ and the Office of the Pardon Attorney conducted research on pardon simplification efforts at the state level. They facilitated interviews with experts and individuals who have applied for pardons in order to figure out what barriers exist and how to address them. As a result of this feedback, they created a revised form that we believe will be easier for applicants to understand and complete.
On November 15, the new form was released for public comment in the Federal Register. We plan to implement additional feedback from stakeholders before finalizing the form in the coming spring.
ATJ used a similar process to work with the U.S. Trustee Program (USTP) to improve access to virtual bankruptcy proceedings. Although remote hearings can expand access for some, they can also impede access for others.
ATJ and USTP worked with legal aid providers to understand what is working and what can be improved. Together, they developed a plan to improve the design of USTP’s public-facing information, including to let people know what to expect during these hearings.
This is just the beginning. ATJ will continue to collaborate with the Department’s components to embed simplification principles and expand access to programs and activities across the Department.
I am also pleased that this year, LAIR has focused on an area that is near and dear to the heart of this former D.C. Circuit judge, namely federal administrative proceedings.
From the bench, I reviewed hundreds of administrative law matters. I saw again and again the way in which the complexity of administrative processes can interfere with access to government programs and services.
This can be because applicants unknowingly submitted the wrong application forms, did not understand what evidence they needed, and missed deadlines they did know existed.
Over the past year, LAIR’s staff worked with stakeholders, legal aid providers, and others to identify these barriers and assess potential solutions to addressing them. The report issued today presents two overarching strategies for doing just that:
First, agencies should engage in continued simplification efforts in the context of administrative proceedings. They should make forms easier to find, make evidence requirements more straightforward, and more effectively explain what participants should expect in administrative proceedings.
Second, the report addresses ways that agencies can increase representation in administrative proceedings, so that those who find themselves before federal agencies have experienced guides to help them navigate.
Sometimes, representation can and should include lawyers. But sometimes, it can be provided just as well by nonlawyers. These include navigators, accredited representatives, and ombuds offices.
Engaging in expanding the scope of who can provide guidance alleviates the strain on already overextended legal aid providers and expands more access to representation to more people.
The report issued today highlights the innovative ways in which your agencies are already making improvements. I look forward to hearing more this afternoon about your efforts and your progress.
Before I close, I want to recognize the Director of our Office for Access to Justice, Rachel Rossi; Executive Director of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, Allie Yang-Green; and the entire ATJ staff for their efforts over the past two years to stand up and support this Roundtable.
When I reestablished ATJ, I certainly did not guess that in just two years it would become central to the whole-of-government effort to improve access to justice.
ATJ’s work — and the work that each of your agencies is doing — is essential. It is essential to building and sustaining public trust in the government, which is itself essential to ensuring the rule of law.
I look forward to hearing from everyone today. It is an honor to work alongside you.