Some thoughts and conclusions from the 2011 Equal Justice Conference (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it was not!)
Jim Sandman is a great speaker and a powerful voice for access to justice. He tells a powerful personal story, carries the message well, and sees the big picture. The LSC Board knew what they were doing.
NY Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s obtaining the $27 million increase in legal aid funding in a time of overall cuts, including to the courts, carries important lessons. It teaches the value of support from beyond traditional constituencies and the potential of judicial leadership and cooperation.
Court simplification is critical to making the system accessible. While only a few projects are in place, this is where the long term action is. We are at least starting to be able to generalize about approaches. (Watch this space.)
Federal courts are now moving into access services. The key is integration of pro bono and self-help, because the system is so complex that it is still hard to navigate without at least some unbundled assistance. Momentum is building and there is huge potential for collaboration.
Language access issues are going to be a point of confusion and tension. The core principles are easy. But implementing them in these financial times (at possible risk to other innovations) is not going to be easy or uncontroversial. So far we have managed to maintain unanimity on the overall goals and it is important not to lose that.
This is not 1995. There is much less anxiety about at least the Federal funding climate than 16 years ago– although that could be radically changed by the 2012 election. We need creativity in creating courter-cyclical funding streams that automatically go up in bad economic times.
This remains a unique time of opportunity that we MUST grasp. With a strong LSC Board and President, an access-oriented SJI Board, the first ever group at DOJ focused on access to justice, interest in these issues at high levels in the White House, and a 30 state network of Commissions or equivalent, we have a once in a lifetime alignment of the planets. If we let this one go, we will simply never have another chance. This is the time for leaders to steep up to the plate and put in place new structures, collaborations and institutions that will then, in better funding times, pay the greatest financial dividends. Till those times come, and perhaps even more importantly, there are many low cost strategies (such as unbundling and court simplification) that can be transformative in showing the potential of change.