ABA President Hilarie Bass urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) this month to continue to prioritize access to justice under the law for all Americans as part of its core mission and expressed support for the work of the Office of Access to Justice, which was established in 2010 to address the access-to-justice crisis in the criminal and civil justice systems.
In a March 12 letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Bass emphasized that the crisis that led to the establishment of the office still exists and Americans need the department’s leadership in helping eliminate barriers to legal access.
She explained that numerous reports over the past 25 years show that representation by public defenders in criminal cases is often woefully inadequate because of high caseloads and a lack of adequate support personnel such as investigators, social workers, paralegals and secretaries. This jeopardizes the goal of providing competent representation to everyone entitled to a defense attorney under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, she said.
Bass also pointed out that the 2017 Justice Gap Report published by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) found that 86 percent of civil legal problems reported by low-income American received inadequate or no legal help.
The Office of Access to Justice has been successful in combating inequities in the systems through the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which brings together 22 federal agencies to raise awareness of how civil legal aid can help advance a wide range of federal objectives, including health, employment, family stability, housing, education, consumer protection, and public safety.
“The Department has also improved systems to ensure that those charged with a crime are accorded constitutionally mandated counsel, has advanced research to improve understanding about impediments to fair and impartial justice, and has provided state and local officials with strategies and resources to improve their justice systems,” Bass said.
Saying that DOJ is uniquely qualified to continue these efforts, Bass urged Sessions to “make reorganization decisions that assign responsibility and provide adequate funding for the critical programs that preserve access to justice for all Americans – both rich and poor − and demonstrate the department’s unwavering commitment to this core value and the rule of law.”