Washington Lawyer

Ensuring Justice for All: The White House Plan

From Washington Lawyer, May 2016

By Kathryn Alfisi

Samantha PowerA White House announcement on September 24, 2015, may signal a change in the federal government's involvement in access to justice efforts. On that day President Obama formally established the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), which brings together 21 federal agencies to work on expanding access to legal services for the most vulnerable and undeserved people in our communities.

President Obama signed the memorandum on the eve of the United Nations' adoption of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, one of which involves making justice accessible to all. "By encouraging Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs, the Federal Government can enhance access to justice in our communities," the memorandum states.

This "holistic approach" of incorporating legal help into the services that people receive from a wide range of government agencies is a significant development, according to James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans.

"It pulls together federal agencies serving constituencies that have legal aid needs [that] otherwise might go unaddressed," Sandman says.

There have been numerous efforts by the legal community in the last few decades to address the nationwide access to justice crisis in the civil justice system, whether through self-help centers, user-friendly documents, legal clinics, or unbundled legal services. However, federal involvement has been somewhat limited. Or as Karen Lash, deputy director of the Office for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice and executive director of LAIR, put it in 2013, access to justice initiatives by government agencies and others too often "operate in separate siloes."

The bottom line, according to Richard Zorza, coordinator of the Self-Represented Litigation Network, is that federal government involvement in civil access to justice issues for the last 40 years "has basically been seen as 'We fund or don't fund [the] Legal Services Corporation and go home.'"

"However, the reality is that in many ways the federal government has a huge impact on access to justice in the civil justice system," says Zorza, who has worked on advancing access to justice for the past 15 years.

That changed somewhat in 2010 when the Department of Justice launched the Office for Access to Justice to spearhead national efforts to expand access to civil legal aid and criminal indigent defense.

The Office's director, Lisa Foster, says approximately 20 percent of Americans are eligible for free civil legal aid, and by age 60 nearly four in five people will experience some kind of economic hardship, such as relying on a government program that provides assistance for the poor or living at least one year in poverty or very close to it. An estimated 70 percent of litigants have to represent themselves in court.

"These Americans cannot afford to hire a lawyer even when faced with life-altering events such as the potential loss of a home, health care, a job, or an education. They cannot afford to hire a lawyer even when they are the victims of domestic violence or elder abuse and desperately need the courts for protection," says Foster.

Civil legal aid—from direct legal representation to advice and counseling, community education, and self-help and technology tools—can help the poor and middle class understand their legal options and, in the end, obtain better outcomes in the justice system, according to Foster.

"For many people, increased legal resources in their community means problems get resolved without going to court. When litigation is unavoidable, legal aid also means courts process cases more effectively and more efficiently, saving everyone time and money," Foster says.

Maximizing Help Through Collaboration

LAIR was originally launched in 2012 by the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice "to raise federal agencies' awareness of how civil legal aid can help advance a wide range of federal objectives." The work of LAIR will ensure, for example, that veterans get the services they need, says Foster.

"When the Department of Veterans Affairs surveyed homeless veterans, it found that four of their top 10 unmet needs had legal solutions. If the VA's programs to help homeless veterans don't include legal aid, it will be much harder to meet their needs and for the program to be successful. The same is true of many federal programs that seek to end poverty or protect vulnerable populations," adds Foster.

To address these issues, LAIR has the following tasks:

  • Improve coordination among federal programs that assist vulnerable and underserved populations to increase efficiency and produce better outcomes;
  • Increase access to justice for individuals and families regardless of wealth or status;
  • Develop policy recommendations for improving access to justice at all levels of government;
  • Work toward the implementation of Goal 16 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which pushes for "the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels;" and
  • Conduct research and hand down best practices for civil legal aid and indigent defense.

In September, the UN adopted 17 goals for transforming the world following three years of negotiations. While not legally binding, they were unanimously adopted by the 193 UN member states during a three-day summit in New York.

Foster says Goal 16 recognizes "the fact that giving all people the power to understand and use the law to secure justice and meet their basic needs is essential to sustainable development and necessary to end extreme poverty."

Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, spoke about Goal 16 at a reception on the eve of the UN summit to adopt the 2030 agenda. "Access to legal services matter, and it is what can make the difference, again, for tangible individuals with faces and with families; in a victim of domestic violence obtaining a restraining order; a homeless veteran getting housing assistance—10 more of whom become homeless in America every day; and a working mom receiving child support," Power said in her speech, citing the presidential memorandum establishing LAIR as an important step among others to address the chronic problem of unequal access to justice.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz currently serve as cochairs of LAIR.

Making a Collective Impact

In its four years of existence, LAIR has made some headway in its work to promote equality and ensure justice for all by bringing together executive departments, agencies, and offices "to inspire new collaborations" on how best to serve the country's poor and middle class populations and engage civil legal aid providers.

Apart from the Justice Department and LSC, LAIR includes the Administrative Conference of the United States, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Corporation for National and Community Service, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of the Interior, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Trade Commission, National Science Foundation, Office of Management and Budget, and Social Security Administration.

"Just think of the huge collective impact that these agencies have on access to justice, how much money flows through them, how many adjudicatory procedures they manage or fund, and what a difference as they start to converge behind an access to justice vision and mission," wrote Zorza in a post on his Access to Justice blog.

Zorza also used his blog to praise the launch of the LAIR Toolkit in April 2014 (www.justice.gov/lair/toolkit). The Toolkit is an online resource guide containing information about civil legal aid and how those services can help advance federal priorities. It also identifies the federal program areas where legal aid providers can add the most value.

"I would like to think that the release of this wonderful Toolkit will be seen as a tipping point in the relationship between civil legal aid, broadly defined, and the federal government. Access to justice is not just a controversial stepchild, rather it has to be a core element of the federal role," he wrote.

The Toolkit is just one example of the progress LAIR has made since its inception. Also in 2014, LAIR's cochairs received the 2014 Government Service Award from the National Legal Aid &Defender Association.

According to the Justice Department's Office for Access to Justice, LAIR's accomplishments to date and ongoing activities include:

  • Clarifying more than two dozen grants involving reentry, access to health care, citizenship, homeless veterans, and other federal priorities to allow legal services that further program goals;
  • Hosting more than two dozen Webinars and other presentations to federal grantees, the civil legal aid community, and federal agency staff about how legal aid advances federal priorities;
  • Offering new training and technical assistance opportunities; and
  • Conducting new research about civil legal aid.

For Sandman, LAIR is already impacting LSC's work in two ways: increasing sources of federal funding for civil legal aid and raising awareness among those involved in running government programs on how legal help can be a valuable tool for serving low-income people.

Making more sources of federal funding available for access to justice efforts makes it "easier for government agencies to make grants that include the possibility of their use for funding legal aid," Sandman says.

While it remains to be seen whether LAIR's continued efforts will result in meaningful and sustainable changes in access to justice, some are just happy that the White House has finally turned its attention to the issue.

"Absolutely, I think it's a wonderful development. I commend the Office of Access to Justice for creating the Roundtable, and I think it's wonderful that the president has given it official status as a White House undertaking," says Sandman.

One long overdue area of improvement, for instance, is making administrative proceedings across all government agencies accessible to people who do not have counsel. LAIR is working with the Administrative Conference of the United States to make this happen.

"There's been very little attention paid to processes before government administrative agencies that have hearings and other proceedings where very important issues affecting low-income people" are being decided," according to Sandman.

"The federal government is already involved in all of these systems, so let's try to have them involved in as helpful a way as possible," says Zorza. "I'm not suggesting that they were deliberately doing the wrong thing, but they were not focused on these issues. They're either a partner or the enemy, and you're much better off having them as a partner."

Reach Kathryn Alfisi at kalfisi@mac.com.