Skip to main content

Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Remarks at the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative Event


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Scott, for that kind introduction, and deep gratitude to ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative for their ongoing partnership, and for hosting this impactful event. A huge thank you to the event organizers, David Dettman, Sarah Timoti and Lorraine Cook for your hard work in planning this discussion and organizing so many powerful people in one room. It is a distinct honor and privilege to speak at this event with Justice Breyer, a longtime leader on access to justice throughout his distinguished career.

And thank you Betsy. The World Justice Project is an esteemed partner, we value your reports, research and of course the Rule of Law Index, which we regularly review as we look at trends and gaps around the world. In 2022, the United States was ranked 26th out of 140 countries based on its commitments and actions undertaken to uphold the rule of law. We hope to engage in further discussions and to develop strategic solutions with a wide range of partners, including those assembled here today, to continue to improve this metric.

It is an honor to join all of you who have dedicated your work to increasing access to justice for people across our country and around the world. In particular, I want to recognize the many civil society leaders who are here with us today, including representatives from Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties and Memorial, who continue an inspirational fight for accountability and human rights.

I am so pleased to see the focus of this event include focus on advancing people centered justice at home and abroad. Sometimes many of us can become siloed into our own contexts, not realizing that another country, city or organization has learned and adapted to certain challenges which we also face. This event is a testament to the importance of shared learning resulting in stronger foundations, responses and outcomes for us all.  And it highlights the most important “why” of all – the reason for government, for rule of law, and the reason we fight for strong democracy. The people.

The Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice is working to advance a people-centered approach across our work, and today I would like to share how this focus serves to expand strengthened democracies and rule of law, both at home and abroad.

As you may know, in October 2021, Attorney General Garland reestablished the Office for Access to Justice, to ensure that we are making the promise of equal justice real for everyone. He asked our office to lead a whole-of-government approach to expanding and modernizing the department’s access-to-justice function, and to work to close justice gaps in both criminal and civil legal systems. 

I’m proud to say that this broad mission of access to justice is among the Attorney General’s highest priorities. The Office for Access to Justice works to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protections of our legal systems and government — that justice does not depend on your income, age, gender, status, identity, ability or the language you speak.

Our office also collaborates on the pursuit of access to justice before international organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We also lead the U.S. government’s effort to implement UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, ensuring equal access to justice for all and building transparent institutions. As we pursue this mission, our work is guided by three main principles:

  • First, increasing access. We work to break down barriers to accessing legal systems by expanding the availability of civil legal assistance and supporting public defense. We are also committed to eliminating barriers that exclude people based on economic status, race, identity, language or disability.

  • A second principle is accelerating innovation. We use research, data and innovative strategies to improve fairness and efficiency in legal systems, and to promote modern, evidence-based practices to further equal access to justice.

  • And third safeguarding integrity. We promote accountability and the integrity of legal systems through criminal and civil justice system reform. When pursuing equal access to justice for all, it is important to expand access to legal systems, but it’s also important to reform the systems themselves to root out systemic inequities.

We believe that justice should belong to everyone. And at the core of this mission and lofty goal is a need to understand where the access gaps are, who is not at the table, and what barriers communities face to the promise of justice.

So we are building a strong and innovative team with people at the center of our work. Last summer, I was honored to be appointed as director of the Office for Access to Justice. Our team now consists of 32 highly motivated professionals who I work alongside with to accomplish our mission. Today I am joined by two colleagues, including Jesse Bernstein, who serves as our senior advisor for international issues, and Lauren Lambert, our Public Affairs lead. Jesse plays a primary role in collaborating with our international partners and he looks forward to engaging with many of you — I hope that you will see him as a resource.

So what is a people-centered approach to access to justice? It first starts with humility, and an acknowledgement that structural inequities exist. Indeed, our legal systems have failed too many people, and have not delivered their promises and protections for all. And it requires consistently centering of the voices of the people we serve, particularly the voices of historically underserved and marginalized communities, to develop solutions that close these justice gaps.

For example, the Office for Access to Justice has hired the first ever department-wide Language Access Coordinator. According to the U.S. Census, the number of people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home has nearly tripled since 1980, from 23.1 million (about 1 in 10) in 1980 to 67.8 million (almost 1 in 5) in 2019. Linguistically marginalized communities and those with limited proficiency in spoken English, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing, cannot be precluded from reporting a crime, understanding their rights, or navigating a court process because of the language they speak.

The Language Access Coordinator chairs the, now officially re-launched, Justice Department Language Access Working Group, that works to ensure that across all Justice Department programs, services and activities we mitigate language barriers, and ensure a seat at the table for communities historically marginalized due to the language they speak. Through the Working Group we’re updating and modernizing the Department’s Language Access Plan, pursuant to Attorney General Garland’s November “Memorandum on Strengthening the Federal Government’s Commitment to Language Access. The language access team is also working on efforts to centralize and expand language access resources and provide to training and technical assistance to other offices within DOJ.

Through our language access work, we hope to serve as a national model, and a collaborator with our state and local partners, in the shared goal of language justice.

Our office also prioritized people centered approaches through our work with the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. We direct and staff the Roundtable – a collaboration of 28 U.S. federal agencies to pursue access to justice across government, co-chaired by Attorney General Garland and White House Counsel Stuart Delery.

The Roundtable’s 2022 report focused on the simplification of government forms, processes and language so that all people can more easily access federal resources. Most importantly, the report creates a roadmap to simplifying access that starts with understanding community experiences and barriers faced, and then proposes the development of simplification efforts directly informed by that feedback.

And most recently, the Department of Justice celebrated 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the right to counsel in criminal cases, Gideon v. Wainwright, by launching a country-wide tour to hear from those on the ground doing the work of making that right a reality. High-level Justice Department officials joined me in visits with public defenders, impacted communities and advocates across the United States, from urban cities, to southern, midwestern, tribal and rural areas. We heard about barriers to ensuring effective access to legal aid and announced a number of actions in response. And we’re looking forward to issuing a publication that will uplift these stories later this year.

What we’ve learned, is that when we trust the experiences of the communities we serve, solicit their ideas and carefully tailor responsive strategies, we can form honest and empowering partnerships and invest together in lasting solutions  This type of engagement builds trust in government, confidence in the rule of law, and more resilient democratic governance.

The Office for Access to Justice shares our approach, lessons, and best practices with counterparts around the world to inspire change. We also prioritize listening and learning from our global partners. Our approach is grounded in humility and mutual respect, given the serious challenges numerous communities face in accessing justice in the United States.

One way that our office pursues these goals through participation in global coalitions, forums, and bodies. Last September, for example, I attended the OECD Access to Justice Roundtable in Riga, Latvia, where I participated in a panel discussion on inter-agency approaches and highlighted the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. 

At the Summit for Democracy in March, I also participated in a side event focused on the rule of law and people-centered justice, where I was pleased to support the U.S. in joining the Justice Action Coalition, which serves to share information and resources on implementation of UN SDG 16 focused on access to justice. And I see Swati from Pathfinders here in the audience with us. Swati, thanks to you and the Netherlands for your leadership and we look forward to participation in this Coalition.

Next week, I look forward to participating in the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, where the official theme is access to justice, to highlight our access to justice work and learn from others. We also look forward to taking part in negotiations on a Canadian-drafted first ever resolution on access to justice, which the Commission is expected to pass by the end of its session.

Finally, last month Attorney General Garland led the Department’s participation in the annual Cross Border Crime Forum with Canada, which this year took place in Ottawa, and which I was pleased to participate in.  Alongside the Forum, I held formal meetings with Justice Canada’s Access to Justice Secretariat.

Canadian representatives shared information about their access to justice efforts as part of public safety strategies, including to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing, reform bail practices, pursue recidivism reduction programs and expand post-conviction integrity efforts. Canadian leaders also highlighted their official Black and Indigenous Justice Strategies, which aim to address over-representation of these groups in Canada’s criminal justice system, and which include formal roles for impacted communities to participate in the development and implementation of these strategies.

We also learned about Canada’s use of data and people-centered approaches and met with Canada’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Law Matters to learn how Canada engages with a cross-section of civil society and official representatives to advance access to justice in civil courts. At the conclusion of the Cross Border Crime Forum, Ministers from both countries noted the, quote, “importance of continuing our work regarding groups already overrepresented in the criminal justice system, to guard against reversing the strong progress made on this front.”

These types of engagement with global partners are important as we continue to pursue access to justice here at home. As the exacerbation of longstanding access to justice gaps from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt across our country, elevating our domestic strategies and engaging with global partners to develop solutions is ever more critical. This is why our approach includes learning from other countries to strengthen our own response to access to justice. 

To conclude, simply put, access to justice means people centered justice. 

In recognizing the importance of U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, Attorney General Merrick Garland stated the decision “reaffirmed that the law protects all of us – the poor as well as the rich, the powerless as well as the powerful. In so doing, it reaffirmed this country’s commitment to the Rule of Law. And trust in the Rule of Law is what holds American democracy together.”           

And people centered justice is central to developing this trust. This is why the work all of you do every day is so important. Work to expand data, transparency and innovation, and to promote access to justice strategies for all, can bridge trust gaps between marginalized communities and officials.

It can serve as a tool to elevate the voices of the communities most frequently unheard but most often in need of the protections of our laws. And to ensure their experiences inform solutions. Most importantly, it can serve as a way to promote accountability of our legal systems, and to root out systemic inequities which undermine progress here at home and abroad.

Thank you for your commitment and service toward these ideals. We know this is only the beginning, and I look forward to continued engagement and collaboration.

Access to Justice
Updated May 16, 2023