Report offers roadmap to improve access to justice

A new report by the American Bar Association provides a first-of-its-kind look at access to justice commissions nationwide, offering an in-depth analysis of their structures, activities, staffing and funding as well as best-practice recommendations.

Across the country, 40 states and U.S. territories have established these commissions.

The report, “Access to Justice Commissions: Increasing Effectiveness Through Adequate Staffing and Funding,” provides detailed steps on how commissions can improve their effectiveness and brief case studies of successful efforts in Massachusetts, New York and Colorado.

The ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives, a project of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), developed the report.

“Some of the most significant advances in access to justice in our country have resulted from the innovative and sustained efforts of state access to justice commissions,” ABA President Bob Carlson said.

He said the ABA is proud of its support for the access to justice commission model, “especially through the work of SCLAID and its Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives.

“We are pleased to continue to focus attention on the need and work of these commissions through this new report,” he said.

A 2016 study by the federal Legal Services Corporation showed that 86 percent — or nearly nine out of 10 — civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans during the prior year received inadequate or no legal help.

In 1991, the ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives began collecting and cataloging numerous state studies documenting these types of unmet legal needs, generating interest nationwide to create and improve state access to justice commissions.

The state access to justice commissions are typically created by state supreme courts and include representation from a broad range of civil justice system stakeholders within the state, such as the courts, bar associations, civil legal aid providers and law schools.

“It is our hope that this report will be useful not only in strengthening the current infrastructure for existing access to justice commissions, but also in providing a blueprint for examining access to justice issues and developing new commissions in jurisdictions that do not have a coordinated, state-based strategy in place,” said SCLAID Chair Ted Howard.

Among other goals, commissions work to remove barriers to civil justice by increasing civil legal aid funding, improving the delivery of pro bono legal services, simplifying court processes and forms for self-represented litigants, expanding language access resources, addressing implicit cultural bias and developing court-based self-help centers.

The new report emphasizes that none of these objectives are attainable without the commission having a strong, stable infrastructure.

Other key findings in the report include:

• Broad, active stakeholder involvement increases the impact of access to justice commissions.

• Professional staff plays a key role with effective commissions.

• The influence of the Conference of Chief Justices, as well as individual chief justices, in expanding access to justice commissions around the country cannot be
overstated.

• The support of the legal aid community is extremely valuable for successful commissions.

• Fundraising is critical, with approximately one-third of commissions involved with fundraising for operational expenses or special projects, and establishing broad coalitions help ensure the success of special projects.

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