The Biden Administration has recently launched initiatives to restore and re-invigorate access-to-justice policy initiatives across the federal government that help connect the public with the legal help they need, including criminal indigent defense and civil legal aid.
In an Oct. 29 announcement, the Biden Administration said it is restoring a standalone Office for Access to Justice within the Department of Justice and reconvening the Legal Assistance Interagency Roundtable. The moves were welcomed by the ABA in a statement by ABA President Reginald M. Turner.
The Access to Justice Office was created in 2016 to integrate legal aid into the work of federal agencies and state and local governments but was not continued by the Trump Administration. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged to re-open it, and the new office will have eight staffers, with a $6 million budget, according to the White House's budget submission.
The Legal Assistance Interagency Roundtable, an interagency effort launched in 2012 to improve outcomes across federal programs by incorporating civil legal aid, was formally established as a White House initiative by President Obama in 2015. Since the Biden Administration took office, the Roundtable has been examining the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to justice and criminal legal systems.
In the Roundtable’s September 2021 status report, it credited the ABA for collaborating with the White House on the successful June 30 White House Summit on Eviction Prevention and Diversion, which convened local government, judicial, legal and community leaders to develop community-specific eviction diversion programs.
The ABA has long advocated for public and private solutions to resolve the access to justice crisis, including federal government assistance. In a 2018 letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions from then-ABA President Hilarie Bass, the ABA objected to the Trump Administration’s intent to close the Office for Access to Justice. Bass emphasized that the access-to-justice crisis in the U.S. criminal and civil justice systems that originally led to the establishment of the separate Office for Access to Justice still existed.
More recently, ABA Governmental Affairs Office staff met with DOJ staff in July 2021 for a detailed discussion on the ABA’s priorities for the Office for Access to Justice mission as well as the ABA’s work in such areas as eviction prevention, indigent defense, civil legal aid, and connecting homeless veterans to legal services.