By Laura Billiter, 3L November 4, 2019
Integrating civil and criminal legal aid efforts, increasing legal aid funding, and raising awareness were some of the topics discussed at the Forum on Increasing Access to Justice, hosted at Michigan Law on October 25. The forum brought together dignitaries to speak on the issue of increasing access to legal aid for low-income Americans and featured panel discussions on housing and eviction defense and how expungements affect employment.
"The level of unmet need continues almost unabated," said John Levi, chairman of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and a partner at Sidley Austin LLP.
Michigan Law organized the event in partnership with LSC, a nonprofit corporation that "promotes equal access to justice" and "provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans," according to its website.
Today, more than 60 million Americans live at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline and qualify for LSC-funded civil legal assistance. But according to U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch, '90, more than 50 percent of those eligible for LSC-funded services are turned away due to high demand. "That's why we're working so hard to make sure that the funding [for legal aid programs] is increased," he said.
The funding issue is critical, according to Levi. "Simply put, our grantees need more money to address the crisis in civil legal aid."
The disparity between legal need and available legal aid is such that, "if the 'Big House' were filled to capacity with [LSC] client-eligible individuals," said Levi, "we would only have 11 legal aid lawyers available to serve their civil legal needs."
Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack echoed Levi's sentiments about the gap between aid and access. Every year, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) conducts a public opinion survey to "gauge current levels of public trust and confidence in the state courts." "And every year," said McCormack, "the public tells [NCSC] that the thing they're most worried about is access."
This issue of access is also reflected in the LSC 2017 Justice Gap Report. According to the report, of an estimated 1.7 million civil legal problems brought to LSC grantees by low-income Americans, more than half would receive only limited or no legal help because of a lack of resources.
In his remarks, Michigan Law Dean Mark West highlighted a few of the School's efforts to close that gap. Students have the opportunity to engage in public interest work through the Pro Bono Pledge, in which students complete at least 50 pro bono hours during the academic year, and through clinics, like the Veterans Legal Clinic, that connect students with individuals and local businesses in need of legal aid. The Law School "is deeply rooted in the public good," said West, and "our mission is to serve the public."
McCormack similarly stressed the duty of the Michigan Supreme Court to serve the public as an administrator of state courts. "That, to me, means it's our job to make sure we're delivering on equal justice— equal justice to all."
According to McCormack, this includes broadening access to both criminal and civil legal aid. "We can't silo our civil justice efforts from our criminal justice efforts. They're not siloed for our clients," said McCormack.
"These problems are interconnected for our clients," she said. "And they have to be interconnected as we think about solutions."
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