National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School Releases Updated & Expanded Justice Index Findings
  • Maryland ranked highest; South Dakota ranked lowest
  • Washington first state with civil right to counsel for tenants, key protection in pandemic era
  • Only 1.12 civil legal aid lawyers per 10,000 poor, compared to 40 attorneys per 10,000 people

NEW YORK, May 18, 2021 -- The National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) at Fordham Law School today released findings in Justice Index 2021, a newly updated and expanded website that ranks the U.S. states on selected best policies for access to justice.

On a 0-100 scale, the Justice Index ranks states in four civil justice policy areas: Attorney Access, Self Help, Language Access and Disability Access. Justice Index 2021 also includes – for the first time – a separate criminal justice ranking dedicated to curbing excessive reliance on fines and fees.

  • For civil justice, Maryland is the highest state, at 64.68, while South Dakota is lowest, at 11.36. Maryland is followed by Massachusetts (2nd/63.71), Connecticut (3rd/62.52), California (4th/61.60) and Hawaii (5th/61.41). (Note: if all jurisdictions are included, D.C. is first at 64.80.)
  • South Dakota ranked 52nd, at 11.36, preceded by Alabama (51st/18.98), Nevada (50th/20.44), New Hampshire (49th/21.45), and North Dakota (48th/22.76) (note: the civil justice listings include D.C. and Puerto Rico, making 52 jurisdictions in total).
  • When criminal justice fines and fees are added into the mix, Massachusetts is highest, at 59.37, while South Dakota remains lowest, at 13.69 (note: the fines and fees listings include D.C., but not Puerto Rico).
  • 10,479 civil legal aid attorneys were counted nationwide. Noting the belief that every state should work towards ensuring at least 10 civil legal aid attorneys per 10,000 low-income people, there are only 1.12 civil legal aid lawyers per 10,000 people with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, compared to 40 attorneys per 10,000 people in the general population.

“The Justice Index’s state rankings show greater fairness to be in every state’s reach,” said David Udell, NCAJ founder and executive director. “The Justice Index’s policy findings show where reform has already happened, where it needs to happen next, and how it can be brought about.”

Created in 2014, updated in 2016 and now again in 2021, the Justice Index shows which states have better policies for justice, regardless of income, language spoken, or physical and mental challenges. By spotlighting the states with the selected policies, it supports policy reformers in the states that don’t have them. This is of particular importance in the pandemic era and as society strives to prioritize racial justice.

“Access to justice means having a fair chance to be heard,” said Jamie Gamble, senior counsel & director, Justice Index project for NCAJ.We look to our justice system to solve problems that cannot be solved elsewhere, including unfair evictions, divorce and custody disputes, and the protection of women and children from abuse and neglect. If it doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t work.”

Examples defining the Access to Justice Movement since the debut of the Justice Index include creation of statewide Access to Justice commissions, prohibitions on charging litigants for costs of interpreters, enactment of Civil Right to Counsel laws, acceptance of statewide self-representation forms in the courts, adoption of new technologies for remote access to court, assurance of service animal access for people with disabilities, and reliance on certified sign-language interpreters.

“While many of the selected policies are easily adopted and inexpensive to implement, the changes are anything but inconsequential for so many people whose lives depend on them, often without the benefit of legal counsel,” said Udell. “Court dockets are overwhelmingly populated by people who are navigating the system alone, and so much more can be done to ease that burden.”

Justice Index 2021 tracks 163 civil justice best practices, allowing anyone to dig deep into any of the five discrete policy areas in each state. See below for explanations, and here for highlights in each category:

  1. Attorney Access: 26 policies for increasing access to a lawyer. Lawyers are expensive. The Justice Index includes a unique “count” of free civil legal aid organizations and civil legal aid attorneys. It also tracks civil right to counsel laws, and best policies for promoting private sector pro bono legal aid.
  2. Self Help: 56 policies for increasing access to justice for people who do not have representation by attorneys. Our legal system was created for lawyers, not people.
  3. Language Access: 35 policies for increasing access to justice for people with limited English proficiency. Across the country, it is a challenge for people who don’t speak English to enforce their rights.
  4. Disability Access: 29 policies for increasing access to justice for people with disabilities. Across the country, people with emotional and physical difficulties face barriers when attempting to protect their rights.
  5. Fines and Fees: 17 policies to curb abusive use of fines and fees. Across the country, state and local governments impose exorbitant fines defendants cannot afford. Later, they lock the same people up for “failing” to pay and impose user fees on top of the fines. For more information on Fines and Fees Justice Index findings, see our separate press release, here.


About the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School and its Supporters

NCAJ advances the principle that everyone should have a meaningful opportunity to be heard, secure their rights and obtain the law’s protection. We use research, data and analysis to expose how the justice system fails to live up to that ideal. NCAJ thanks pro bono participants at the following institutions who assisted with the Justice Index research: Deloitte, Pfizer, Fordham Law School, DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins, Kirkland & Ellis, Morgan Lewis, O’Melveny & Myers, Strook & Strook, Simpson Thacher. Without their efforts, the 2021 Justice Index would not have been possible. We are also grateful to the dozens of court officials around the country who assisted with the research, which was conducted amid the extraordinary demands of 2020. The project was made possible by charitable support received from Arnold Ventures and from the Bernard F. & Alva B. Gimbel Foundation.