Every year, millions of Americans who need help with their legal problems find out that there is no such help on offer. Some are left to go it alone in court, where they may stand little chance against a better-equipped adversary. Some lose their homes, their savings and their children in cases they might have won with the right kind of help. Others avoid the legal system altogether, in situations where it could help vindicate their rights or win reparation for abuse.
On June 8, 2021, NCAJ published a new report that asks how new models of legal services delivery-- by people other than lawyers-- might help bridge the access to justice gap. The report, which you can find here, draws on interviews with more than 60 people who have a sharp, firsthand perspective on America’s access to justice crisis and the kind of change they think is needed. None of them are lawyers. Most work directly, every day, with people who suffer for want of legal help. We've collected and put forward some of the most vital, inspiring and provocative perspectives that emerged from those interviews.
One key finding is that the policy debates around these ideas need to be much more inclusive than they generally are. Faced with the vast scale of unmet legal need, several US states are finally moving to embrace alternative models of legal services delivery. They are leading the way forward with real, concrete steps to improve access to legal services. Unfortunately, most of these reform efforts have suffered from a defect that sharply limits their potential. In state after state, debates around legal services reform have been devoid of non-lawyer perspectives.
Fortunately, there is an entire universe of people who encounter unmet legal needs every day and have keen perspectives on their urgency, as well as the best ways to confront them. They are not lawyers. They are librarians, legal document assistants, social workers, community organizers, tenant advocates, and others. Those professionals, community leaders and activists often have a sharp perspective on the kind of change states should embrace to empower their residents to get the right kind of help.
Our report draws a wealth of fresh new thinking about reform from these interviews. In so doing, it also shows why it's so essential for policy debates around these issues to include these perspectives at center stage.