One attorney for every 10,000 low-income Americans. One for ten thousand. That haunting stat spotlights the stark reality that there is much to be done to address this nation’s access to justice gap.

Merrick Garland

President Biden took a small but, fingers crossed, important step in directing federal resources to this rule of law crisis. On Oct. 29, he reestablished the shuttered Office of Access to Justice as a standalone unit within the Justice Department.

Whether and what kind of impact it will have remains to be seen. There is so much to do, including finding money to build the necessary technology infrastructure to deliver legal services at every level of our justice system.

Restoration of the office is just part of the DOJ’s larger plan to address the access-to-justice gap. In a report recommending the office be restored, Attorney General Merrick Garland noted ways the DOJ and key stakeholders can move the needle.

The list is understandably long and certainly more than a single office can handle alone. But as a coordinator and clearinghouse, this office could effectively help identify and direct resources by:

  1. requiring innovation and approaches that utilize emerging best practices in the field within the Department and across government;
  2. enhancing the navigability of the justice system through technology, disability, language, and cultural access;
  3. conducting research and data collection to better understand access-to-justice needs and better gauge whether programs are effective, equitable, and accessible;
  4. supporting access to the courts for the self-represented, including by improved processes, simplified forms, and expanded non-lawyer and self-help programs;
  5. expanding civil legal representation through wider pro bono efforts, support of legal services providers, expansion of existing legal representation programs; and development of new methods and models to utilize federal resources to ensure access to counsel;
  6. facilitating partnerships and consistent communication with outside stakeholders, other agencies, state and local entities, and the private sector to achieve access-to-justice objectives;
  7. having an important role in grantmaking, legislative, regulatory, budget, policy, and litigation efforts relevant to access to justice;
  8. pursuing environmental justice, including by ensuring the fair treatment of all people with respect to environmental laws, regulations, and policies;
  9. supporting public defenders and indigent defense, including by ensuring defenders have a voice on government commissions, committees, working groups, and in legislative and policy decision-making;
  10. fostering health justice and medical legal partnerships, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic;
  11. expanding legal representation in immigration proceedings and through holistic approaches within other immigration contexts;
  12. pursuing racial equity as a cornerstone of access-to-justice efforts and all departmental work; and
  13. ensuring economic opportunity and fairness by addressing barriers to equal access to justice that arise from fines and fees, bail, warrants, and ability-to-pay processes, as well as through bankruptcy, antitrust, consumer protection, and eviction and foreclosure proceedings.

If I could pick one to knock off THIS list, it would be expanding pro bono. While pro bono is part of a larger solution, I’m not seeing that being a role for this office. There are others on this list that could also easily be ensnared by political battles. That said, tackling the first four as priorities, with a healthy emphasis on No. 12 (racial equity) could make a measurable difference.

I’d like to see this office up to speed and acting with urgency. As Garland stated in announcing the restored office, “There can be no equal justice without equal access to justice. And because we do not yet have equal access to justice in America, the task before us is urgent.”

Sources used in this post:

A REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES FROM THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Pursuant to the President’s Memorandum on Restoring the Department of Justice’s Access-to-Justice Function,” DOJ, Sept. 15, 2021

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Restores the Office for Access to Justice,” DOJ release, Oct. 29, 2021

DOJ’s Access to Justice office reopens in moment of crisis and opportunity,” Reuters Legal, Nov. 2, 2021