This piece was originally published in Fast Company on January 10th, 2023.
For communities of color, immigrants, rural communities, and those living below the poverty line, the justice gap is simply the status quo. Here’s how to fix it.
BY LIZ KEITH AND RODRIGO CAMARENA
Every day in this country, millions of low-income Americans are prevented from finding safe housing, meeting critical health care needs, and exercising other rights simply due to our country’s inability to ensure that everyone facing a legal problem can access help for it. A 2022 report found that in over 9 out of 10 cases, low-income Americans don’t receive adequate legal help for their civil legal problems—a figure that’s only worsened during the pandemic. This is what advocates call the access to justice gap.
For communities of color, immigrants, rural communities, and those living below the poverty line, the justice gap is simply the status quo. It’s the pervasive injustice felt by a low-income family that’s unable to fight an unlawful eviction; it’s a young mother’s inability to file an order of protection against her domestic abuser; it’s the English-only legal notice received by an immigrant with limited English proficiency; and it’s the slow and steady erosion of rights that marginalize entire communities and feed systemic inequality.
As we start another year of growing economic and political uncertainty, closing the justice gap is an essential and urgent task for leaders committed to strengthening our democracy and bringing about a more stable and just post-pandemic recovery. While the path to shrinking America’s justice gap is long, it’s already being charted. Here are three strategies from civil society that the Biden administration and advocates across sectors should commit to as they seek to broaden access to justice in America.
INVEST IN PUBLIC AND NOT-FOR-PROFIT DIGITAL INFRASTRUCTURE FOR ACCESS TO JUSTICE
Imagine if legal services were as easy to navigate as ordering a car via an app or shopping online. Where one could start a case against their landlord for failing to make essential repairs, apply for citizenship, or find safe and free legal support all with the click of a button. This may sound like fanciful thinking, but we’re already seeing examples of this approach across the United States.
With a digital tool designed by the nonprofit JustFix, tenants can now send a customized letter to their landlord requesting repairs via USPS Certified Mail. GoodCall, a triage hotline, provides a direct line to legal support for the arrested before their cases advance without representation. At Pro Bono Net and Justicia Lab, we’ve designed tools to help people easily apply for citizenship, complete legal forms in plain language, and recover stolen wages.
While these are all proven efforts that are working, they are insufficient at solving for a larger structural deficiency. Developing a comprehensive public or not-for-profit digital infrastructure for access to justice requires resources from all levels of government and across civil society. The same resources and competencies that Silicon Valley has spent on building and maintaining our most used tech platforms are all needed to build a public digital infrastructure to help millions of Americans access their rights. We’ve built national infrastructure like this before. From our railroads, highways, and roads to our ongoing investments in broadband, we can also build an open and public digital legal infrastructure that can simplify legal processes and empower everyday people to access their rights.
The Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program is one way federal funding is successfully seeding not–for-profit tech innovation and infrastructure to close the justice gap. But its $4 million annual budget pales in comparison to the record $9.1 billion that flowed to for-profit legal tech in 2021, and what’s needed to ensure our nation’s legal system works for everyone—not just those who can pay, or investors seeking profit.
ENLIST COMMUNITY-BASED ORGANIZATIONS AS JUSTICE PARTNERS
While the Access to Justice movement has built incredible momentum over the last decade, these conversations have been largely confined to the legal and legal aid community.
Dramatically expanding access to legal help is going to require partnership by a wider coalition of groups—including healthcare workers, educators, librarians, social workers, and community organizers. Many of these frontline workers are already seeing the everyday effects of the access to justice crisis on clients they serve. Equipped with the right resources and support, they can play a key role in helping their clients find a way forward.
In more than half a dozen states, including Indiana and Florida, social services staff have been trained to conduct legal health “checkups” for homebound, disabled, or isolated seniors they are already serving through meal deliveries, caregiving, and other assistance. Using a web-based screening tool, these non-legal professionals can identify legal issues like financial exploitation or housing instability that otherwise might go undetected, and quickly connect their client to a partnering legal aid program for help. This collaboration model helps social and legal services organizations work together to address risks to a senior’s wellbeing, and reach many more people who can benefit from legal help. And it was developed, refined, and scaled through grants from federal agencies and private foundations committed to multidisciplinary and holistic approaches to elder care.
In New York State, a network of domestic violence agencies, YMCAs, hospitals, and other groups have been trained to help domestic violence survivors complete and remotely file an online order of protection form with the courts, an essential step toward obtaining safety. Last year, this network helped more than 10,000 survivors complete complex forms more easily, at their own pace, without the added time, cost, and stress of traveling to court. For courts, the program streamlines processes and makes justice more accessible for people seeking help under the most difficult circumstances.
By increasing federal investments in community-based networks of legal care and digital tools to support them, we can scale access to legal help in settings that lawyer-centered and private market solutions will never reach on their own. Grant programs like the Administration for Community Living Legal Assistance Enhancement Program, the DOJ’s Legal Orientation Program, and services awards managed by DOJ’s Office of Victims of Crime should be expanded and replicated.
DEVELOP INNOVATIVE POLICY THAT DEMOCRATIZES WHO CAN FACILITATE ACCESS TO JUSTICE
For too many, access to the legal system still means hiring a costly attorney. To be its most impactful, a public digital infrastructure needs to be coupled with public policy that can open up new human resources and reduce red tape.
In Alaska, the state’s Supreme Court just took a major step toward addressing the access to justice crisis by widening the pool of who is allowed to provide certain legal services to include paralegals, tribal employees, village health aids, and law students, among others. Under the new rule, people who don’t have official law degrees can work with the nonprofit Alaska Legal Services Corporation Community Justice Worker program to offer support and guidance to low income Alaskans looking to fulfill their rights.
In a landmark federal court case in New York, the financial‐education and civil rights nonprofit Upsolve filed a challenge to New York’s unauthorized practice of law (UPL) statute citing First Amendment grounds and won. The federal judge blocked New York from enforcing its UPL laws against Upsolve’s volunteers, offering a powerful legal precedent for others who might bring challenges to other state’s antiquated UPL laws.
By shaping current and future policies to make it easier for more people and groups to play a meaningful role in legal work, we can empower hundreds of thousands of new individuals to support us in this fight (many of whom are already doing aspects of this work). This approach is already in practice in other countries, where community paralegals are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. In the U.S., this approach is already utilized in the world of healthcare, where community health promoters, outreach workers, physicians’ assistants, and nurses facilitate access to care, deliver vaccines, and educate communities on preventative care—all critical strategies throughout the pandemic.
To make a real and lasting impact on bridging the justice gap, we need to focus on simplification, democratizing legal help, and building tools so everyday Americans can engage with our legal system—no matter their station in life, county of origin, gender, or ability.
Liz Keith is state and national programs director at Pro Bono Net. Rodrigo Camarena is director of Justicia Lab, Pro Bono Net’s innovation incubator for immigrant justice technology.