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Poverty Journal Symposium Highlights Access to Justice

March 9, 2015 —

Every American knows that he or she has a right to an attorney in a criminal case — thanks to Miranda warnings on TV crime shows. But what many do not know is that they could lose their home in a foreclosure proceeding, their children in a custody proceeding or even the assurance of their own safety in a protective order proceeding, if they are unable to afford a lawyer in those civil matters. 

Speaking at the Law Center on March 3, Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, reported that the state of access to justice across the nation has become nothing short of dire. And as the need for civil legal aid has risen to an all-time high, the resources available to meet that need have plummeted.

“The result is that huge numbers of people in the United States face legal proceedings without a lawyer,” Sandman said at “Rationing Justice,” the 2015 symposium of the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy. The event marked the 40th anniversary of LSC, the largest funder of civil legal aid programs in the nation. 

People who once had enough money to buy a home may end up facing foreclosure proceedings alone, Sandman said. “How can this happen in a country founded on the rule of law?”

Sandman and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals offered some solutions including utilizing new technology to provide information and simplify navigation of courts; creating new roles for nonlawyers; establishing mandatory pro bono hours for lawyers; and raising public awareness of the problem. 

Panels examined four decades of legal services in the past and new directions in legal strategy for the future. Associate Dean Jane Aiken, co-director of the Community Justice Project clinic at Georgetown Law, discussed the need to educate future community lawyers with specific skill sets, which Georgetown Law’s clinical program aims to provide. 

Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality; Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor; and Chief Judge Eric T. Washington of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals introduced the speakers.

“[T]here is an access to justice revolution in this country, and we are laying the groundwork for that…” said Lippman, noting that the judiciary, the legal profession and academia have a critical role to play in shaping the values of the profession with respect to access to justice. “We have to absolutely push the envelope day in and day out … the bottom line, and we cannot rest until we get there, is the idea of equal justice. The idea must be a reality here in D.C., in New York, and around the country, and I ask you all to be soldiers in that effort.” 

A webcast is available here.

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