Last week, we explored the scope of the justice gap and the often devastating practical consequences of the shortage in legal representation for low-income families across the country. As promised, we’ll now shift to a more hopeful discussion--how do we fix this problem? What are some of solutions and how do we implement them? Over the past decade, a range of innovations has emerged to cope with dwindling legal-aid budgets and rising need for legal aid. From self-help resources for litigants to a pro bono requirement for new attorneys, the legal services landscape is evolving to address the fact that far too many clients aren’t accessing the help they need. Through pilot projects, some cities have even begun to ensure representation for all litigants in certain civil matters, such as foreclosures. Still, while these local and independent responses are tremendously valuable, larger structural changes likely are needed reduce the long-term gap. Without a national “civil Gideon” approach--guaranteeing counsel to all unrepresented parties--how do we increase access to justice? For more insight into this issue, I checked in with someone who has clearly thought about it at length: Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation and a panelist at Tuesday’s event. Jim, the winner of our 2012 Presidents' Award, was gracious enough to answer my questions by email, and below I’ve summarized some of his suggestions for how policymakers and the legal community can reduce the justice gap: 1. Increase funding Funding for LSC grantees has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, making it difficult for even the most efficient organizations to serve every client who walks in their doors. To enable these organizations to fulfill their missions, Jim wrote, we need an “increase funding from all sources for legal aid programs.” 2. Simplify and streamline the legal system for unrepresented parties Navigating the legal system can be notoriously frustrating for unrepresented litigants who are unfamiliar with court practices and complicated rules of procedure. To make the system more user-friendly, Jim proposed that we “expand the use of simplified and standardized forms written in plain language, increase online do-it-yourself resources, and permit non-lawyers to handle routine matters that do not require a legal education.” Reducing red tape and administrative barriers would both increase access to justice and reduce courts’ dockets, yielding a more equitable and efficient judicial system. 3. Increase pro bono participation among private attorneys Third, Jim noted that the private bar has a significant role in reducing the justice gap by pitching in and contributing pro bono hours; however, we need to do a “better job of educating the profession about the nature and extent of the need.” This is also a priority of the Washington Council of Lawyers, which volunteers regularly at the DC Bar’s advice and referral clinic and seeks to publicize other pro bono opportunities in the DC area. 4. Provide legal aid organizations with better tools As they cope with reduced funding and smaller staffs, legal services organizations must evaluate how to operate most efficiently. As Jim described, we should “equip legal aid organizations with the business tools to manage their resources to maximum effect--to use solid data to determine what legal services yield the best outcomes for clients and to apply the same rigorous analyses to their own performance that corporations use to assess the performance of their law firms.” In effect, these tools would allow legal services organizations to do more with less, and establish best practices for securing results for the individuals and families they serve. Achieving the above goals would greatly increase access to justice and reduce disparities in our legal system. Nevertheless, Jim emphasized that there is no “single solution” to widespread underrepresentation, and that addressing the problem effectively will require a wide range of interventions and collaborations.
By Aleta Sprague Our event next week at the Center for American Progress will explore a crucial issue facing the legal community: with legal services in crisis, how can lawyers, advocates, and policymakers ensure access to justice for low-income families? A key driver of the crisis, of course, is inadequate funding. This will come as no surprise to any legal services attorneys reading this post, but the magnitude of the problem is staggering. Over the past three decades, Congress has cut the Legal Service Corporation's budget by about seventy percent. Because LSC provides funding to about 134 legal aid programs--that employ approximately 58% of the attorneys working to provide legal aid–these organizations are scaling back. Indeed, a recent survey revealed that LSC-funded organizations anticipated laying off 13.3% of their attorneys between 2010 and 2012, along with 15.4% of their paralegals and 12.7% of their support staff. For every attorney who is let go, between two and three hundred fewer clients will be served. And with the proportion of eligible legal aid clients accessing services already below 20%, any further cuts would be devastating. At the same time, due to the recession, the need for legal services has never been greater—particularly for those facing debt and foreclosure. In 2008, LSC organizations handled 31,653 bankruptcy and debt relief cases; this number rose to 39,346 cases in 2010. Foreclosures reflect a similar trend; in New York, foreclosure cases rose by 683% between 2007 and 2011, and the cases “sit in the system” for an average of two and a half years. Legal aid lawyers assist clients in foreclosure through loan modifications, mediation, and providing representation in foreclosure proceedings. These attorneys also were among the first to identify the “robo-signing” scandal in 2010. Still, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice revealed that the vast majority of families facing foreclosure in most states are not represented by counsel. In New Jersey, for example, 92.9% of the defendants in foreclosure cases in 2010 had no attorneys on record. The practical impacts of these trends can be devastating. As the report documented, unrepresented parties in foreclosure proceedings often fail to present key pieces of evidence that could make a difference between staying in their homes or being out on the street. According to testimony from Martin Mack, the Executive Deputy Attorney General of New York, “[T]he lack of individual representation in foreclosure actions is one reason we have seen systemic abuses of the legal system by lenders and debt collectors.” These types of hurdles extend beyond foreclosure cases. Litigants trying to access or reinstate their public benefits, secure a protection order, or file a discrimination claim will also encounter a range of unfamiliar processes, rules, and language that put them at a distinct disadvantage in court. So that’s the bad news. Now what do we do about it? What’s the role of the pro bono community? Barring universal representation, how can we best serve the needs of unrepresented litigants? We’ll start answering these questions in our post on Monday, and be sure to attend the event on Tuesday as we explore some ideas, strategies, and solutions.