The Office on Access to Justice, opened in 2010, was a bold and unprecedented effort by the Justice Department, driven by the principle that our federal government has a responsibility to ensure that our legal system is a system of justice in actuality, as well as in name. The office tackled a critical problem: Our justice system, designed to assure the rule of law, can be intimidating and inaccessible, and too often produces unfair results for those who cannot afford an attorney. In our criminal justice system, too many people are locked up not for committing a crime but because of their poverty — because they cannot afford bail. And their public defenders handle caseloads that far exceed recommended limits, jeopardizing those attorneys’ ability to provide representation that meets constitutionally minimum standards. In our civil justice system, people’s lives are likewise impacted in ways that rival the harshness of the criminal justice system. Routinely, and often unnecessarily, people lose their homes, families, savings, food, medical care — even their emotional and physical safety and security — because they cannot afford legal representation.
The op ed continues by describing accomplishments of the Office in supporting both criminal and civil justice system reform, and in linking the two reform agendas together. Across the country, the Office supported indigent defense reform and bail reform, and had urged limits on the use of justice system fines and fees to finance local government. The Office also helped to highlight the ways in which unjust outcomes in eviction and foreclosure disputes, debt collection cases, family violence battles and other types of civil justice proceedings, not only harm individuals and families, but have broader adverse societal consequences, including their contribution to the problem of mass incarceration. The Office played a pathbreaking role in convening social science researchers to help increase momentum for research on the effectiveness of the civil justice system.
The op ed observes that the Office’s loss requires a renewed commitment by all of us to justice for all.
To read the full op ed, co-authored by Jonathan Lippman, Matthew Diller, and David Udell, visit The Hill. Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the New York Court System, is of counsel at Latham & Watkins. Matthew Diller is dean of Fordham Law School. David Udell is director of the National Center for Access to Justice. The three are co-directors of the A2J Initiative at Fordham Law School.
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