The Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit is a Major Breakthrough

Before the establishment of the Access to Justice Initiative within DOJ, Federal funding for community based — indeed all — legal aid was basically limited to LSC, with maybe odds and ends, usually through state routes, for senior services and domestic violence victims.

This week, with the release of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit, all that is changing.  The Toolkit, launched at the White House Forum last Tuesday, and conceived and staffed by the ATJ Initiative at DOJ, is at one level a set of tools for legal aid programs — community, court or bar based — to identify and apply for possible funding for their work.  That’s incredible, with seventeen agencies involved in the Roundtable, which by the way, is chaired by Associate Attorney General Tony West and Cecilia Muñoz
Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

But perhaps even more important that the concrete resources in the toolkit is the message sent loudly by the presentation and framing.  The main intro includes this graphic:

wh-doj-2The message to the bureaucracy is very clear.  The administration is on board with this approach.  That the Civil Legal Aid 101 document starts with a quote from the President, “[civil legal aid is] …central to our nation of equal justice under the law,” hardly undercuts this message.  While, of course, funding decisions are made on the merits, affirmative statements of the value of programs by such leaders help make sure that programs are given appropriate attention, where often in the past they have not been considered beyond LSC.

The toolkit includes seven fact sheets that describe how civil legal aid programs help those dealing with domestic violence, Criminal records, keeping children in school, veterans and veterans families, homelessness and accessing health care.  These are similarly helpful in emphasizing that the broad ways that the services provided with civil legal aid — broadly defined — contribute to the many of the tasks and missions of the federal government.  An example quote from the criminal record and reentry fact sheet:

“Of the more than 500 adults with criminal records
served byour Parent Success Initiative Program in 2012 and 2013,
nearly80% required legal assistance to help them overcome or
mitigate the stigma of their criminal convictions. Legal services
are critical even for participants who successfully complete work
readiness training and a transitional job experience.”
Dr. Marsha Weissman, Executive Director, Center for Community
Alternatives, New York, and Department of Labor grantee

The fact sheets typically include an analysis of the general need, a description of the federal government response, from a variety of agencies, some stories of help actually given, and a detailed listing of the specific ways that civil legal aid helps with this agenda.  For example in the veteran’s context:

Legal Aid Helps
• Prevent avoidable eviction and foreclosure by assisting veterans in their legal proceedings —even
if an eviction is only delayed, veterans can use the time to apply for benefits or find housing.
• Negotiate fair child support orders, increasing the reliability of payments, and supporting healthy
co-parenting relationships and responsible fatherhood.
• Navigate outstanding warrants, fines, fees for court costs, and subsequent penalties for failure to
pay those fees and fines, in order to resolve conflicting obligations, improve manageability of
collections, and where possible, to prioritize child support and restitution.
•Restore a revoked or suspended driver’s license by helping navigate a relicensing hearing,
making it possible to secure and maintain a job.
• Provide family reconciliation assistance for veterans who need legal help concerning
divorce, separation or child custody arrangements.
• Resolve credit report problems that prevent a veteran from renting an apartment or getting a
• Secure a wide array of government benefits for which veterans may be eligible, ensuring
applications are filled out correctly and records of service are compiled accurately, and if a
veteran’s benefits are erroneously cut off, helping reinstate the benefits by working with the agency or
representing the veteran in administrative proceedings.

In each of these sheets there is a quote from a cabinet member.  For example, Vice-President Biden on domstic violence. “Research tells us that effective legal representation is the single most important factor in whether victims are able to escape this domestic violence cycle.  Yet studies indicate that less than one in five low-income victims of domestic violence ever get to see a lawyer.”  (portions reformatted)

Finally, a big section provides specific ATJ funding and support resources for civil legal aid on an agency by agency basis.  This is where the day to day meat is to local legal aid — broadly defined — programs to see how to expand their services and collaborations.  This is not just for fundraisers, it is for all who want to think more broadly about their work — including those providing court or bar based legal aid.

I would like to think that the release of this wonderful Toolkit will be seen as a tipping point in the relationship between civil legal aid, broadly defined, and the federal government.  Access to justice is not just a controversial stepchild, rather it has to be a core element of the federal role.

I am particularly pleased that the vision is a comprehensive one.  For example, language from Legal Aid 101 includes the following in the description of services:

  • Direct services by legal aid attorneys and pro bono volunteers such as legal representation in a court proceeding, and legal advice to help identify legal issues and possible solutions.
  • Identifying and addressing systemic issues such as comprehensive data collection and helping to identify solutions to problems faced by a large number of people.
  • Self-help and community education delivered via workshops, telephone help lines, medical/legal partnerships, online information and chat tools, and downloadable court forms, that help people understand their rights and responsibilities, when legal assistance may be needed and where to find it, and get assistance with self-representation when necessary.

Similarly, in the section on provision of such services:

Civil legal aid is provided free of charge by nonprofit legal aid organizations, “pro bono” volunteers (attorneys, law students and paralegals), law schools, court-based services such as self-help centers, and online technologies such as document assembly and legal information websites.

.  .  .

“Civil legal aid” or “civil legal services” refers to all of these programs. LSC encourages – and all non-LSC programs depend on – leveraging limited resources by partnering and collaborating with other public and private funders of civil legal aid, including federal state and local governments, Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA), state-based access to justice commissions, the private bar, philanthropic foundations, and the business community.

So, huge congratulations to all, with great hope for the future.

By the way, I understand that NLADA will be adding much of this information into their database, together with other funding information.

Posted in Dept. of Justice, Funding, LSC, White House | Leave a comment

Justice Earl Johnson’s Remarkable Book on the History of Legal Aid

I am proud to be able to share with the readers of this blog the Prologue of the remarkable recently published book by Justice Earl Johnson Jr. (ret).  The three volume work is a history of legal aid since the very beginning (1876).

In the Prologue, Earl places himself, and the history, firmly on the side of a comprehensive and change-oriented view of the movement:

This book tells the story behind our nation’s tardy and as yet unfinished effort to make those people unable to afford lawyers equal to those who can—and thus for the first time establish justice for that segment of the population. That effort is usually called “legal aid” or “legal services for the poor.” “Legal aid” is not exactly a term that conjures up images of turmoil and controversy in most peoples’ minds. It sounds so much like “first aid,” and “band aid,” and similar help for those in trouble it is difficult imagining why anyone would oppose it. Yet for most of the last half century, legal aid for poor people has been a major political and ideological battleground, a target of nearly constant assaults from the right wing of U.S. politics as well as some powerful politicians and wealthy campaign contributors.

In a sense it has been a contest over two visions of what poor people deserve in the way of legal aid. To analogize to health care—should the government only provide them a network of first aid stations or should it also give them access to specialists and hospitals when they have serious illnesses. The code words for the first aid station approach in the legal aid context is having offices that limit their mission to just taking care of poor people’s “everyday” or “routine” problems. The language describing the broader vision started with the very first legal aid society, which included in its mission “promoting measures for their protection.” During the war on poverty it was called “law reform” and later was labeled “impact work” or “high-quality legal services.”

Earl also describes in the Prologue the range of his exploration:

The book is divided into six parts published in three volumes—each part consisting of several chapters and covering a different historical era. Volume one contains two parts—first, the Charitable Era from 1876 through 1964, when civil legal aid depended entirely on the generosity of private donors, mainly wealthy ones; and second, the war on poverty era, from 1965 through 1974, when civil legal aid became part of the war on poverty as the OEO legal services program when it earned headlines and enemies aplenty.

The second volume also has two parts: first, the attempt to rescue the legal services program when the war on poverty collapsed by creating an independent Legal Services Corporation, a rescue effort that took nearly four years, 1971–1974, and second, that corporation’s first dozen years, 1975–1992, which early on brought great progress followed by a brush with extinction.

The third volume contains the final two parts. The first relates the congressional constriction of access to justice for poor people and how that has affected the nation’s civil legal aid system, 1992–2008. The final part contrasts the development of legal aid in the United States with its evolution in other industrial democracies, then speculates about its possible future in this country.

Earl is now disinterested observer — nor does he present himself as such.  He was very much “present at the creation,” deeply involved with Gary Bellow, Edgar and Jean Cahn, and Clint Bamberger in the development of the original OEO program.  Most recently, he has become the national guru of the civil Gideon movement, and one who understands the importance of making full use of the continuum of services.

This is written by someone who participated in some parts of that history—rather than a completely detached observer. I was at the center of events for a few years and active at the periphery for many others. I started as a poverty lawyer in the ghettoes of Washington, D.C., then became the first deputy director and second director of the federal government’s first program funding legal representation of the poor—the OEO’s Legal Services Program. Later as a member of the National Advisory Committee to the OEO Legal Services Program, I was one of a number of people involved in the legislative campaign that ultimately created the Legal Services Corporation. This independent public corporation took over from the OEO program and now continues to administer the federal government’s funding of legal services for the poor. Later I was appointed as an appellate judge in California, and remained interested but largely uninvolved in events affecting the Legal Services Corporation at the national level, while becoming active in access to justice initiatives at the state level in California.

Its a great book (Amazon link here).


Posted in Access to Justice Generally, History, LSC | Leave a comment

Glenn Rawdon’s Visionary White House Speech is About 100% Access, And More, Not Just About Technology

Glenn Rawdon’s speech titled Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere at the April 8 White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice was about far more than technology.  After describing how Bill gates talked in 1999 about technology convergence, the history of the TIG program, and the recent LSC Technology Summit Process, Glenn went on to talk about how the vision went beyond the tools to the access vision.

This is a vision for the convergence of the technology — for unified systems to achieve the ultimate goal enunciated in the Summit’s Mission Statement, that is, to provide some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.

I want to home in on the phrase “some form of effective assistance.” This doesn’t mean a lawyer for everyone for every matter; that’s just not realistic. What it does mean is not turning anyone away with no assistance at all, which is what happens all too often today.

How do we achieve this? By providing three different levels of assistance:

Information – for those whose problem lends itself to self-help and who have the ability to do it themselves if they have the right tools and information

Advice – for those who can still help themselves but need guidance and advice to get there

Representation – for those who, because of the nature of the case, the stakes, and their circumstances, need a lawyer

The technology tools we need to deliver these different levels are already under way through projects of LSC’s grantees; projects to further vision of the Summit.

Triage pilots in New Mexico, Montana, and Maine. These systems will ask questions of the users and use the answers to direct them to the most appropriate resource, be that information, advice, or representation.

The LawHelp Interactive document assembly project, with over 3000 documents from more than 40 states that produced over 450,000 documents last year.

Mobile-friendly website redesigns in Louisiana, text messaging reminders in Virginia, and redesign of the A2J Author tool for mobile devices. If you are not familiar with it, A2J Author is a tool developed with funding from the State Justice Institute and LSC that is used by many legal aid programs and courts to do the interviews needed for automated forms, online intake, and triage.

Our challenge is to be sure that, when these tools are built, the pieces that technology cannot provide are there. It would be futile to build a system to direct users to the appropriate resource when that resource is missing. This means that, in addition to our traditional resources, we have in place robust websites, instructional videos, actual court forms to be automated, attorneys who do unbundled advice, and court self-help systems.

We make this happen by convergence — Legal aid, the bench, the bar, law schools, libraries, and anyone else who cares about justice, coming together so all the pieces are there. No more each building our own systems, but a cooperative approach to provide the information, advice, and representation needed so that access to justice is there for Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere.

Let me urge that not only is this speech being about more than technology, it is also about more than access to justice.  This is because what Glenn is talking about is how technology offers the opportunity to help an organization or group re-think the potential reach of its own mission.  To be blunt, without the technology components, it would be impossible to be talking about “some form of effective assistance” to all.  Here is the question:  How many other fields might benefit from thinking in the same way about the broadening of overall potential through technology components.  How many have been focusing on the (admittedly valuable) social media opportunities to tell their story better, rather than thinking aobut how they might be investing in a better story.

The access to justice world has a lot to teach the rest of the nonprofit and service communities.  Lets start sharing it.

Posted in Access to Justice Generally, Communications Strategy, Document Assembly, Mobile Technology, Systematic Change, Technology | 3 Comments

New York Law Journal Reports on Navigator Program

The New York Law Journal has just published an excellent article on the Navigator program (full article accessible for free) in part of the Brooklyn Housing Court and part of the Bronx court dealing with consumer credit matters.  As described in the article:

The pilot program permits trained nonlawyer volunteers to help litigants fill out paperwork, organize documents and even accompany litigants to court appearances where, upon court direction, they can answer factual questions such as which benefits a person has applied for and whether a building is rent regulated. They may also direct litigants to legal service programs or help centers where court-employed attorneys give legal and procedural information to unrepresented parties.
Navigators are prohibited from giving legal advice.

After describing the help given to one individual, the article reports on the anxieties of certain of the bar, and the state bar president’s quote that:  “If navigators can be helpful to people who don’t have, and can’t afford, a lawyer and are not engaged in practicing law” as the administrative order instructs “then we’re open to see how it works in practice,”

I encourage everyone to read the full article, that explores the questions the bar has in more detail, is specific about what navigators are permitted to do, explores the reaction of tenant advocates, and discusses Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher’s long term perspective and willingness to learn from the pilot.

The overall sense I took is that the program seems to be working, but that certain of the profession are anxious.  In short, the article is well summarized by the headline:  Navigator’ Program Launches; Skeptics ‘Wait and See’.

Disclosure: I am on the  Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap, established by Chief Judge Lippman, that recommended the pilot.  On a personal level, I am very encouraged by the apparent success of the launch, and confident that as so often with access to justice innovations, the skeptics will find the changes much less disruptive than they fear.  I hope that more detailed evaluation of such programs will let us craft them for optimum effect.

Special thanks to the New York Law Journal for making this important article generally available to all.


Posted in Non-Lawyer Practice | 1 Comment

April 8 – Another Important Day for Access at the White House

It’s becoming a wonderful tradition.  A White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice, at which the administration’s commitment to access to justice is highlighted, hardworking partners are honored, and stakeholders get to network about future ideas.

I plan to blog in more detail abut some aspects of the Forum in the next few days, but want quickly to get out a summary of the headlines.

As before it was great to hear senior administration officials highlight the President’s and First Lady’s commitment.  This time it was Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, White House Counsel, Kathy Ruemmler, Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady, and Tony West, Associate Attorney General.  Interestingly Verrilli put the issue in the context of the debate about income inequality (and sounded more radical than the legal aid folks.)  He urged what he carefully called an “expectation” of lawyers giving 10% of their time to pro bono, and reported that he had always tried to so so when in private practice.  I have to admit it was great to hear Ms. Techen talk of what the President was focusing on “this afternoon in the Oval.”  It was like being in West Wing.

Counsel Reummler announced the very important seventeen agency Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable and its Toolkit.  The Toolkit includes various materials on potential federal funding sources for legal aid, broadly defined, including court and community based access services.  Much more on this later.  Note now the critical importance of the fact that the Toolkit is introduced with a Message from Attorney General Eric Holder and
Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz. This is much more than a message to the reader, it is a signal of administration policy priorities to those who labor in the funding agencies, and its long term importance can not be overstressed.

A panel expertly chaired by LSC President Jim Sandman on corporate pro bono partnerships brought out the lessons of pro bono and highlighted the need for additional research into those lessons.

Glenn Rawdon, LSC’s Program Counsel for Technology, building on Board Chair John Levi’s introduction talked brilliantly of the coming “Access to Justice Convergence, and how the technology strategies adopted at the Summit would help guarantee that all who could not afford access services would obtain “some form of effective assistance,” a phrase that I expect we will be hearing much of in the future.

Finally Tony West, Associate Attorney General, remembered earlier remarks by prior Attorneys General on legal aid (described at link), and underscored the administration’s commitment.

I will follow up with more detail and reflections in the coming days.  Remember, if you want to get e-mail notices of my blogs you can sign up in the right panel of the blog site.  You can get twitter notifications by subscribing to my @rzorza feed.

Posted in Dept. of Justice, Funding, Legal Aid, White House | 3 Comments

Suggestions for an Expansive and Popular Definition of “Civil Legal Aid”

Given that on Tuesday April the 8th there is an invitational event at the White House described as “White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice,” it seems a good time for reflections on how best and most effectively to talk about our work.

Indeed, as readers of this blog are well familiar, we now know, thanks to the work of Voices for Civil Justice, that the phrase “civil legal aid” is highly effective as communicating our core goals and identify.  As readers are also aware, for many voters, their support of additional funding for “civil legal aid” is conditioned on their being convinced that it is available to all who need it, i.e. not only the very poor, but also middle class folks.

This obviously means that it is important that we include in our definition of “legal aid” services and programs that are not vigorously means tested, including the many that are provided by courts, libraries and others.

While this might feel a bit counter-intuitive to those of us steeped in decades of using the term “civil legal aid” to mean LSC and IOLTA funded programs, (although actually till about the year 2000 we used “legal services”) in fact thinking about the words themselves, “legal” as relating to the law, and “aid” as being “help,” there is no need for them to be viewed so narrowly, and no reason that to think that they are thought of so restrictively by the public.  On the contrary, the public is pretty confused about distinctions like this that are very important to insiders.

Which means that we can put our energy not into worrying about mis-interpretation of the phrase legal aid (except possibly in our immediate court and ATJ communities) and rather focus on what words can be most effective in underlining the breadth of the concept to all constituencies.

I like the idea that we start using the phrases “community-based legal aid,” and “court-based legal aid,” to describe such services, and even “bar-based legal aid” when provided by a bar organization.  Similarly, phrases like “legal aid, including community and court-based legal aid” underline the breadth and unity of the concept.

This also means that phrases like”legal aid forms”, “legal aid self-help programs,” legal aid clinics,” all of which are very popular, work perfectly.  In some contexts “non-profit legal aid,” “public-private partnership legal aid” and “pro bono legal aid” may also be both clear and helpful.

It is important that we keep focused on the words that work.

Disclosure:  I am on the Advisory Committee of Voices for Civil Justice, but these are my personal, although not necessarily unique, opinions.


Posted in Communications Strategy, Forms, Legal Aid, Self-Help Services | 3 Comments

Progress in Three States on Non-Lawyer Access Innovations

There is now a lot to report on non-lawyer practice — with much of it not yet getting the attention it deserves.

First development.  In New York Housing Court (Brooklyn) non-lawyer “navigators” are now actually in place helping litigants day-to-day.  Its a revolution now happening.  As announced by University Settlement on their website:

Our court navigators are trained non-lawyers that assist unrepresented litigants in housing cases. These navigators accompany litigants to court and respond to questions from the judge, providing moral support and information to litigants. Navigators can also help tenants keep paperwork in order, assist them in accessing interpreters and other services and, before they even enter the courtroom, explain what to expect.

This program represents a partnership with two other groups that serve different levels in the process. First, Housing Court Answers will be at the court during the early petition stages – before a date is set – to answer any questions about forms and determine if additional help is needed. Representatives will refer tenants needing additional assistance to either a New York State Access to Justice Navigator – who is on-site the day of hearings – or, in cases where individuals need additional preparation and help, the Housing Court Answers representative will direct them to us.

Our program is the first of its kind in NYC. We’re here to level the playing field and tackle the threat of eviction head on, and we’re not alone. New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman led the charge to establish this program, and we even received support from the editorial staff of the New York Times. (Note: first link modified to blog summary)

Second Development:  In Washington State, seventeen students are now taking the classes that will enable them to be Family Law Limited License Legal Technicians.  I understand that the expectation is that those of these who pass the exam, to be held early next year, will be in actual practice in the spring of 2015.  Information about the enrollment is announced here at the March 26, 2014 meeting of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, with video here, at one hour and three minutes and 54 secs.  There is lots more info here.

Third Development: In California, as reported by the Bar Journal, the State Bar Civil Justice Strategies Task Force held a hearing which included extensive testimony by Gillian Hadfield, an advocate of dramatic change in the structure of the market based delivery system.  Professor Hadfield’s work has been highlighted before by this blog. As the Bar Journal reported Hadfield:

She said the typical hourly rate for lawyers must be reduced from more than $200 an hour to about $40 so low- and middle-income people could afford them. “The thing we have to come to grips with is, the problem is cost,” Hadfield said.

The California Daily Journal piece on the hearing, sadly behind a paywall, discusses her advocacy of non-lawyer practice in more detail.

At the same hearing, as reported by the Bar Journal, Associate Justice Laurie Zelon, spoke of a variety of approaches that include an expansion of the role of non-lawyers:

Among solutions showing promise, she said, are using non-lawyers in legal self-help centers and as “navigators” in courtrooms, and “unbundling” legal services, so a lawyer would represent a client for only part of a case. Court rules, forms and processes also must be greatly simplified, she said.

This all suggests that things are really starting to move, and that we are getting to the place that success with one idea in one state will be useful to those moving forward in other states.

Disclosure:  I am on the New York Task Force on this topic, and have had a number of conversations with people in states and in the access movement.  I am particularly concerned that we are able to do good evaluations that are built on a common approach, at least asking the same questions, and using data that is sufficiently similar that real comparisons of the costs and benefits of different approaches can be made.

Posted in Non-Lawyer Practice | 4 Comments