March 01, 2016

Building the Justice Layer of the Internet

Lawyers must get involved in helping with current justice needs that aren’t being met, or face a growing online justice system that threatens to do so without us.

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Although it enjoys a reputation as one of the most fair, efficient, and effective in the world, is the United States of America’s judicial system, like the rest of our country’s aging infrastructure, badly outdated and in need of an overhaul? Many think so. A recent report prepared by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic put it this way:

 

Legal representation is fundamental to safeguarding fair, equal, and meaningful access to the legal system. Yet, in the United States, millions of people who are poor or low-income are unable to obtain legal representation when facing a crisis such as eviction, foreclosure, domestic violence, workplace discrimination, termination of subsistence income or medical assistance, and loss of child custody. Indeed, only a small fraction of the legal problems experienced by low-income and poor people living in the United States—less than one in five—are addressed with the assistance of legal representation.

 

Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, Access to Justice: Ensuring Meaningful Access to Counsel in Civil Cases 1 (Aug. 2013), https://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/human-rights-institute/files/Access%20to%20Justice%20Shadow%20Report%20-%20Final%20(small%20size).pdf.

The report was endorsed by several other civil and human rights groups, including the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Brennan Center for Justice. See id.

Part of the problem can be attributed to the difficulty in handling large numbers of civil cases awaiting access to the court system and to the fact that criminal cases take priority. A Wall Street Journal article described a federal employment discrimination lawsuit filed in 2007 that was still on the docket in 2015 as one example in an avalanche of cases piling up in the federal courts, where the number of civil cases left unresolved for three years or more exceeded 30,000 five times in the past decade. Joe Palazzolo, In Federal Courts, the Civil Cases Pile Up, Wall St. J., Apr. 6, 2015, www.wsj.com/articles/in-federal-courts-civil-cases-pile-up-1428343746. We all know that justice delayed is justice denied.

Not only are the formal justice systems overloaded, inaccessible, and unaffordable, but also, people with justiciable needs often do not even know to ask for help from a lawyer. One study concluded that the American justice system is not doing a good job in meeting identified civil justice needs. See People for the American Way, Overloaded Courts, Not Enough Judges: The Impact on Real People (July 29, 2015), www.pfaw.org/sites/default/files/lower_federal_courts.pdf. Another indicates that people don’t even think of lawyers anymore to solve their justice problems. See Rebecca L. Sandefur, Am. Bar Found., Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study 16 ( 2014), www.americanbarfoundation.org/uploads/cms/ documents/sandefur_accessing_justice_in_the_contemporary_usa._aug._2014.pdf.

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