I am just back from the International Legal Aid Group meeting in the Nederlands. While I plan to share several ideas from the meeting, I want to start with some overall strategic thoughts from Prof. Maurits Barendrecht of HiiL/Tilburg University.
His presentation on 5 Observations about the future of legal aid is so to the point that I can not resist including all of it (with permission):
Observation 1: Right now, traditional services eat up most of the budgets:
•Lower courts with sometimes inefficient procedures
•Legal aid by lawyers
•Supreme courts and appellate courts
•Agencies and committees
Observation 2: Is this maximizing effectiveness?
Observation 3: A rapidly expanding variety of newly developed services
•Legal information websites, platforms for dialogue and dispute resolution on line, rules in the form of guidelines for fair solutions; protocols and standards for solving recurring problems; with helpdesk type of services as back up.
•Assistance by fixed fee paralegal and lawyer/mediator hybrids with a problem solving approach. This is offered through many different models (insurance, fixed fee lawyers, government subsidies)
•Third party dispute resolution mechanisms and courts that are specialized for specific justiciable problems (employment, consumer, disability, social security etc.)
Observation 4: New opportunities require different strategies
•Information and websites are public goods (private providers can hardly make money from them) but there is very little investment by governments yet. Quality is still an issue.
•Personalized assistance is mostly a private good. Most people can pay themselves or fund these services through insurance mechanisms; subsidies can be focused on specific disadvantaged groups.
•Third party adjudication is mostly a private good. Many plaintiffs and/or defendants can pay for the resolution if procedures are simple. Subsidies can be focused on specific disadvantaged groups and cases with important external effects.
Observation 5: Becoming part of the future is difficult for strategic decision makers
•This requires a shifting of resources
•There is a danger of alienating the coalition of lawyers, judges and politicians that guaranteed jobs, budgets and power until now.
•Many of the new developments take place in the private sector or deep in the court organisations. The role of government is much less clear.
Possible ways out of this dilemma to explore may include:
•Radically reshuffling of subsidies to more promising innovative services
•Defending the present services much more rigorously with research and lobbying
•Becoming more like a market supervisor: leveling the playing field for new and old approaches, providing research about interventions that work, helping to certify services so as to the increase transparency and to guarantee minimum of quality
•Building platforms that connect new and old services
These observations — intended to describe the situation worldwide — seem remarkably apposite for the US. I am only glad that so many good things are happening in the US now, that we can treat this as a helpful map, rather than a lament. I very much hope that, as we advance international communication on these issues, we will be able to learn from strategic approaches taken by other countries, and also will be able to point to specific programmatic successes.
It is probably worth pointing out in this regard that while in the US we have tended to be isolated from international legal aid developments, one area in which we are now reaping huge benefits is in the international demonstration of the value of research — a demonstration that has surely played a part in the new and critical emphasis on this in the US. If we can see similar impact in other areas, this international networking will be of huge value.