What Happens When Life Issues Become Legal Issues?: National Service as a Solution to the Justice Gap
Contributed by guest blogger Martha Wright, Senior Court Services Analyst for the California Administrative Office of the Courts and Statewide Co-Director of the California JusticeCorps, an AmeriCorps program that places diverse university students to assist overburdened courts with supporting self-represented litigants.
Nowhere is the effect of the current economic downturn more visible than in the halls of our nation’s courthouses.
Just as budget cuts are forcing courts to close their doors one or more days a month and furlough or even downsize staff, caseloads spurred by economic hardship are on the rise.
The legal issues proliferating these days involve tenants evicted because their landlord is in foreclosure; marriages pushed beyond the breaking point; collection notices on bills that can’t be paid; or loss of health insurance due to a lay off.
The Justice Gap
These life problems gone unresolved often become legal problems. And without the means to hire professional representation (typically at a fee starting around $250 an hour) people have no choice but to try to navigate the system on their own.
The problem is: the court system was designed for lawyers to navigate. The procedures, language, forms, even the courtroom itself, are all extremely intimidating to anyone without years of education and experience.
Add to that limited English language skills, or just the fear and anxiety that comes with a major life crisis, and you begin to see the picture.
It’s the picture of what we call the “Justice Gap.” According to the national Legal Services Corporation (LSC), only a small fraction of the legal problems experienced by low-income people (fewer than one in five) are addressed with the assistance of either a private attorney (pro bono or paid) or a legal aid lawyer. The rest fall into the gap.
According to the LSC, “closing the justice gap and securing necessary access to civil legal assistance will require a multifaceted approach including a partnership of individual lawyers, the organized bar, federal and state governments, private funders and concerned private parties.”
National service — part of the solution to the Justice Gap
Here I highlight an approach that employs a unique combination of all these resources—leveraging the power of national service to meet unmet legal needs and ultimately, improve community stability.
AmeriCorps programs like Equal Justice Works (EJW) — for recent law school grads — help to narrow the justice gap by increasing the availability of pro bono legal representation opportunities and expanding the legal resources in underserved communities.
EJW’s AmeriCorps Program tackles the problem by recruiting, training, and placing in service full-time Legal Fellows in partner organizations uniquely positioned for maximum community benefit. During the 2008-09 term of service, 36 EJW fellows represented 26,019 clients on pressing legal matters; engaged 927 pro bono lawyers in public interest work; and recruited 2,193 law students to assist in providing legal services to low-income communities and make the connection between the law and public service. That’s a significant expansion of pro bono legal services accomplished by well-leveraging the placement of just 36 talented AmeriCorps members around the U.S.
The beauty of national service is that it can be done effectively by so many different people in so many different environments.
In California, the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) along with several local courts, non-profit legal aid providers, and universities are approaching the problem from within its ultimate culmination point—the courts themselves. In California, as in several other states, self-help programs for those coming to court without an attorney have been given top priority within the judicial branch. No longer can court staff simply refer people with questions to legal aid services only to be turned away, or to accept a legal form knowing that it’s may not have been completed properly or might not have even been the right form to begin with.
With some help from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and proactive policy decisions at the state level, many courts are devising ways to help people navigate the system. In California we’ve found that court-based legal access self-help centers are a perfect environment to apply national service resources for greater impact.
Since it began in the Los Angeles courts in 2004, the JusticeCorps program has expanded to the Bay Area and San Diego with new sites coming soon in the Sacramento region. We recruit undergraduate students from local partner campuses, then train them and place them in service in the courts.
Because the courts are constitutionally designed to be a fair, neutral forum for dispute resolution, the JusticeCorps members don’t provide advice on legal issues, but rather help people navigate the system so they don’t lose their way.
JusticeCorps members refer litigants to appropriate resources, identify the proper legal forms and help clients complete them, and assist in workshop settings — all under the supervision of a court-based attorney.
In the short run JusticeCorps members help the courts serve people better. In the long run, they help stabilize communities and improve public trust and confidence in our justice system.
And for many of the AmeriCorps members, working on the front lines of the access to justice movement is a life changing experience. Whether they go on to law school or a career in legal services, social work, or even an unrelated field or the private sector, they will take with them a real understanding of not just the rule of law, but what it means to really help someone in crisis.
Further national service resources:
- If you are on the East Coast and interested in serving with a legal-focused AmeriCorps program there, also check out the Massachusetts Legal Assistance for Self-Sufficiency AmeriCorps program, which accepts people both before and after law school.
- Also check out Equal Justice Works’s Summer Corps — for current law students — and its non-AmeriCorps Fellows program for recent law school grads.
- Listen to The New Service podcast with Cole McMahon and Marty Costello of Equal Justice Works’ AmeriCorps program.
- Using the Advanced Search function on AmeriCorps.gov, select “law” from among the skill sets needed for open national service positions throughout the country.
Thinking about law school in pursuit of public interest legal career?
- Take a look at the brand-new overview of public interest law school — admissions, what to look for in a program, career possibilities — from Idealist.org’s Public Service Graduate Education Resource Center!