The recent economic recession has brought new urgency to longstanding problems in the delivery of legal services. For decades, bar studies have consistently estimated that over four-fifths of the individual legal needs of the poor and a majority of the needs of middle-income individuals Americans remain unmet. Our failures in providing access to justice have been compounded in the recent downturn. High rates of unemployment, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and reductions in social services have created more demands for legal representation at the same time that many of its providers are facing cutbacks in their own budgets. As a consequence, legal aid and public interest programs are often being asked to do more with less.
In this context, the need for greater research and education about the justice gap assumes increasing importance. To allocate scarce funds wisely, we need better information about unmet legal problems, the gaps in service provision, and the cost-effectiveness of various strategies to address them.
The recent creation of an Access to Justice Initiative within the United States Department of Justice under the Obama administration responds to these concerns. The initiative’s interest in building bridges to legal academics prompted a meeting at Stanford University in 2011 co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession, the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, and the American Bar Foundation. One result of that meeting was the creation of a Consortium on Access to Justice. The mission of the consortium is to promote research and teaching on access to justice, and one of its first initiatives has been the preparation of a report. Although the consortium’s primary focus is on civil matters, many challenges that it identifies are equally apparent in indigent criminal defense. We aim to enlist more legal scholars and educators in focusing on the fairness and legitimacy of the American justice system, and to create constituencies that are more informed and motivated to address its challenges.
Read the report, Access to Justice: An Agenda for Legal Education and Research