The upcoming January/February 2019 issue of GPSolo magazine on “Access to Justice” seeks to raise awareness of a pervasive problem in the United States that for most attorneys is out-of-sight, out-of-mind: Most Americans have trouble accessing, navigating, or defending themselves in our court systems. None of our civil, criminal, or even administrative systems were designed to be “user friendly,” and without being trained in judicial processes, or having access to the funds to hire someone who has, the average citizen has no idea how to navigate our legal system. There are few areas of the law that aren’t suffering an access-to-justice problem, whether it is criminal law (defendants who cannot afford representation or bail), civil litigation (low-income consumers who have been defrauded or are being unlawfully harassed by creditors), family law (couples unable to afford a divorce or pay for an adoption), or trusts and estates (surviving spouses and children who cannot take title to a house or car because they have no clue how to probate an estate).
Access-to-justice issues touch every part of our legal system but in ways that we as practitioners often fail to see. After all, most of our interactions are with individuals who have the means and the know-how to hire us to access the legal system for them. That’s why I believe this issue of GPSolo magazine is a must-read for all subscribers. We don’t just examine the problems of access to justice but offer solutions for how each of us can help improve our legal system for those who need it the most, and ways you just might increase your bottom line in the process.
Three eye-opening articles highlight the crisis facing low-income Americans involved with the courts. In “The Crisis in Federal Criminal Law,” Cynthia Eva Hujar Orr explains how the current structure of federal funding and oversight for indigent representation exacerbates a system that is overstretched, underfunded, and operating at a breaking point. Jeff Yungman’s article “The Criminalization of Poverty” brings us perspective on how 30 years of changes in judicial policies meant to increase funding to local courts has instead turned these courts into modern-day debtors’ prisons. An accompanying sidebar looks at similar mechanisms happening with civil fines. The bright spot, however, is that the pendulum is starting to swing back as more jurisdictions become aware of the negative social cost of these revenue policies.
The bulk of this issue focuses on ways that we as practitioners can help. Michael G. Bergmann and Brent Page explain how important it is for us to participate in pro bono work and funding legal aid organizations. Other articles look at making a difference through offering limited-scope representation, publishing legal information for free online, and utilizing customer-centric legal tech that helps break down barriers while introducing you to new clients. For those of you who aren’t legal service plan providers, I urge you to check out Jean Clauson’s article, “Legal Service Plans Are a Win-Win for Attorneys and America’s Middle Class.” My own experience with clients I have met as a legal plan attorney has convinced me of the true value of these plans to American workers. So many of these clients not only could not have afforded an attorney otherwise but would have suffered greatly without having access to one. And don’t forget to check out Casey Gwinn’s and Gael Strack’s article on legal incubators to see how law schools and young attorneys are helping to close the access-to-justice gap.
I hope you find these articles as enlightening and uplifting as I did. Even more, I hope this issue motivates you to do your part to help make our justice system truly accessible to all who need it.