November 9, 2017
By Amy Spooner
At first, it might seem strange that the chairman of the board of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the country’s single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans, quoted a college football coach during the LSC’s recent Access to Justice Forum. But the venue was the University of Michigan Law School and the quotee was U-M’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh, who serves on the organization’s Leaders Council.
The November 3 Access to Justice Forum brought together public interest law practitioners, advocates, and members of state and federal judiciaries to discuss a “fourth and long situation,” said LSC board chair John G. Levi, referencing Harbaugh’s comments during June 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill. “The LSC’s funding is at an all-time low at the same time that the need for civil legal aid services is at an all-time high. When Coach Harbaugh spoke before Congress, he said it is like sending 80 percent of a football team onto the field without helmets. It’s time we all put on our helmets and get in the game.”
According to the LSC’s 2017
Justice Gap Report, in the past year, 71 percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem related to health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence, among others. And 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. Established by Congress in 1974, the LSC promotes equal access to justice and provides grants to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid programs that operate more than 800 offices nationwide, providing high-quality civil legal assistance to those who cannot otherwise afford it.
In 2017, low-income Americans will approach LSC-funded legal aid organizations for support with an estimated 1.7 million problems. Yet they will receive only limited or no legal help for more than half of these problems due to a lack of resources. In March, the Trump administration’s first 2018 budget proposal called for eliminating funding for the LSC. “Without civil legal aid services, the access to justice gap would be a chasm,” said Justice Margaret Chutich, ’84, who serves on the Minnesota Supreme Court. As part of the forum, Chutich joined the Hon. Victoria Roberts of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack for a panel discussion of judicial perspectives on the access to justice problem. Roberts noted that access to justice is a concern at the federal level, as well as in the state courts. “[The Eastern District of] Michigan has the most pro se filers of any district in the sixth circuit,” she said. “We are constantly walking the line so that we can give advice to these citizens without practicing law on their behalf.”
The judicial panelists also discussed technology’s ability to close the access to justice gap and are enthusiastic about the possibilities in the future. In Minnesota, which has a unified court system, all courthouses have computer kiosks where citizens can access forms and legal information online, as well as dedicated phones to connect people to self-represented litigant staff. The court system also has implemented e-filing, is making forms more user-friendly, and is developing a statewide triage portal that will quickly match people with services to best meet their needs. At the same time, the state is committed to keeping brick-and-mortar clinics operating. “Our goal is to bring services to the people instead of making them search for them,” said Chutich, “but there’s no wrong door. We want to make sure people can call, use the portal, or still stop by their local legal aid.”
As court systems and legal aid clinics look for ways to do more with less, McCormack, who is a former Michigan Law professor and co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said that it’s time for students—and not just law students—to be innovative. “If we do it right, technology has the possibility to disrupt the system, and smart students in law, business, engineering, and public policy can figure out how to use technology to improve access.
“The access-to-justice Uber is out there, and it’s going to change everything.”
Bob Gillett, ’78, the executive director of the Michigan Advocacy Program, and Suellyn Scarnecchia, ’81, a clinical professor at Michigan Law, stressed the importance of clinical training and pro bono work for law students. In 1997, Gillett and Scarnecchia co-founded the Michigan Poverty Law Program, a partnership between the Michigan Advocacy Program and Michigan Law that Scarnecchia said has been “a tremendous success by any measure of evaluation.” It also has provided more opportunities for students to engage with local nonprofits and pursue public interest work. “Many public interest organizations, including ours, hire based on legal ability and what we call a demonstrated commitment to the low-income community. Nothing demonstrates that commitment better than having had meaningful experience with a legal aid clinic,” Gillett said.
Liza Rios, ’04, reminded participants that despite the challenges facing legal aid providers, the mission matters. She is managing attorney of the Michigan Advocacy Program’s Lansing office—one of the Legal Services Corporation-funded offices in the state. “It’s an incredible privilege to serve the community I love every day, and knowing that we are the last best hope for our clients is daunting but inspiring,” she said. “It is shameful that so many people cannot access the justice system in the richest country in the world. Support for access to the justice system and the work of the Legal Services Corporation should be a unifying cause for anyone believing in the U.S. Constitution.”
Levi noted that access to justice has increasingly become a non-partisan issue, with Congressman Joe Kennedy III [D-MA] and Congresswoman Susan Brooks [R-IN] launching the Congressional Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus in 2015. Representatives Debbie Dingell [D-MI] and Fred Upton [R-MI] are among its members. LSC President James Sandman told the forum attendees that the outpouring of support for the organization in the wake of the defunding threats leaves him optimistic about the future. “We can and will win anew the value of equal justice under the law. Our country’s commitment to equal justice is older than the republic itself. It is the highest American value, and it is no accident that the framers of the Constitution cited justice before providing for the common defense and promoting general welfare. You won’t have a nation worth defending without it.”
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