Access to justice has never been more critical or more at risk than it is now, nor has the work of the National Center for Access to Justice ever been more important.
The access to justice movement is working to ensure that poverty, language barriers, mental illness and other disabilities, and the lack of trained people to help navigate a complex system do not prevent people from seeking to protect their most basic human needs through our American justice system:
- to put a stop to domestic violence and avoid physical injury;
- to enable a family to stay together instead of splintering into foster care;
- to preserve a worker's savings instead of letting fraudulent creditors prevail;
- to allow a family to stay in its home, instead of being pushed onto the street.
These are matters of food and shelter, stability and security, even life and death.
The divisive language of the presidential election has left many vulnerable people even more afraid that the courts cannot be a place of safety and fairness. The election results have made clear as well that many people, not typically considered vulnerable, both feel and are insecure in their ability to protect themselves and their families.
The courts must be a bulwark against alienation and despair. People need to know there is a place where respect for the tradition of equal justice means that they will be heard and respected, where they can experience their government standing with them against oppressive power, where they can protect their rights and interests.
The rule of law has never been more important.
The gap between the promise of equal justice under law and the experience of many in our country is deep and wide. Challenges to overcome include the police and courts imposing fees and fines on the poor to pay for government functions, courts grown accustomed to a single side (or neither side) having counsel, and justice institutions unable to assure that people at risk will have capable interpreters and avoid perilous confusion. Opportunities for free legal aid are limited and at risk of becoming moreso.
NCAJ's Role & Activities
Working with data, NCAJ operates at a macro level to establish, test and replicate policies that expand access to justice. NCAJ is helping to close the justice gap, and is making real progress. Our current initiatives include:
- The Justice Index - Since 2014, NCAJ's data-intensive tool drives reform by ranking states on best policies that include: the ratio of civil legal aid lawyers to people in poverty, systems for people without lawyers, interpreting and translating services for non-English speakers, and support for people with disabilities. The 2016 Index is live, www.justiceindex.org. Read the media coverage to learn about court officials and advocates using our findings to drive change. We will be updating and expanding the Justice Index in 2017, while continuing to encourage its use as a platform for advocacy.
- Implementing Goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals - With Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, we brought 30 leaders from nonprofit organizations and academia together with 15 federal agencies in a "civil society consultation" to devise "access to justice indicators" for the U.S. government to use in implementing the UN's "Goal 16" which calls on all countries of the world to use data to expand access to justice as a means of ending extreme poverty by 2030. See U.S. Department of Justice Blog. In next steps, we will post on-line a set of the recommendations provided to the agencies, and U.S. DOJ will issue a complete report on implementation of Goal 16.
- Building "The Business Case for Access to Justice" at OECD in Paris - We are also working in the international arena, having now presented our views on three occasions to staff of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development ("OECD"), the sibling entity to the United Nations known for cost benefit and efficacy analyses, where we urged a commitment of OECD resources to evaluate "the business case" for investing in civil legal aid as a response to extreme poverty. OECD's project is going forward with a next event in the spring.
- Conducting Research on Access to Justice - We have provided support and guidance to two tests of models for assuring access to justice in the absence of lawyers. The first, done with National Science Foundation funds that NCAJ helped to secure, asks whether judges can increase fairness by taking on "proactive roles" to alert tenants to key evidence and arguments. The second asks whether "navigators" can make a difference in outcomes if they help litigants understand and answer questions from judges in eviction and debt collection proceedings. The two reports will be completed and published in the months ahead.
NCAJ is Now at Fordham Law School
This summer NCAJ moved to Fordham Law School where we co-chair a school Access to Justice Initiative with Dean Matthew Diller and former NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. In a launch event, we convened four state chief justices and the leader of the civil legal aid and indigent defense bars in a public panel discussion that has already generated new strategies for extending the "access to justice revolution" to the "intersection of the civil and criminal justice systems." We will conduct more cutting-edge events in the year ahead, with such topics as: unifying the global and domestic access to justice movements, building a comprehensive access to justice research agenda, and, knitting together the civil and criminal justice systems.
We all share a stake in identifying, implementing, evaluating and replicating best policies for access to justice. In our own country, and in countries around the globe, little matters more. With the help of our supporters, NCAJ's data-intensive approach made a difference in 2016. With your help NCAJ will be able to increase its impact in the year ahead. Please be generous by making a tax deductible contribution here or by mailing your check to NCAJ, 150 West 62nd Street, Room 7-165, New York, NY 10023.
Best wishes, and happy holidays!
David Udell, Executive Director
Ellen Rosenthal, Chair of the Board