The Access to Justice Vision Was Articulated Almost 50 Years Ago By Attorneys General Kennedy and Katzenbach.

As we celebrate that we have an Access to Justice Initiative at DOJ, we should remember that almost 50 years ago the access vision was articulated by two US Attorneys General – and that it was a comprehensive vision remarkably similar to the one we are pursing today.

On May 1, 1964, Law Day, then Attorney General Robert Kennedyspeaking at the University of Chicago Law School, urged a broader responsibility upon lawyers.

As a profession we have conveniently – perhaps lazily – abdicated responsibility for dealing with major social problems to other professions – sociologists, educators, community organizers, social workers, psychologists.

Rarely if ever do the best lawyers and the best law firms work with the problems that beset the most deprived segments of our society.  With some outstanding exceptions, that work is done – if it is done at all – by the members of the bar who have least prestige, who are likely to be poorly trained, and who are likely themselves to be engaged in a struggle for economic survival. .  .  .

But we as a profession have backed away from that larger [poor peoples’] helplessness.  We have secured the acquittal of an indigent person – but only to abandon him to eviction notices, wage attachments, repossessions of goods and termination of welfare benefits.

To the poor man, “legal” has become a synonym for technicalities and obstruction, not for what is to be respected.  .  .   .

First we have to make law less complex and more workable.  .  .  .  Second we have to begin asserting rights which the poor have always had in theory.  .   .   .  Third, we need to practice preventive law on behalf of the poor.  .   .   .  Fourth, we need to develop new kinds of legal rights in situations that are not now perceived as involving legal issues.

And, on November 12, 1964 (just after the landslide election), Nickolas Katzenbach, by then Acting Attorney General, spoke at the Conference on Extension of Legal services, as follows, after describing typical legal problems of the poor that we would recognize today:

There must be new techniques, new services and new forms of inter-professional cooperation to match our new interest.  .  .  .  There are signs too that a new breed for lawyers is emerging, dedicated to using law as an instrument of orderly and constructive social change.  .  .  .  Experimental internship programs like those run by Georgetown Law School are beginning to infuse academic training with experience drawn from the reality of life, rather than from the disembodied “facts” of appellate decisions.  .   .  .

One of the threshold problems in this new era is simply to make rights known.  .  .  .  Second, even if rights are known, they can protect and provide little if they are entangled in a maze of technicality, detail, and subsections.  Faced with such complexity, even the informed poor, are given the choice of walking through life with a lawyer at their side, or surrendering to the “can’t fight city call” philosophy.  Third, the protection of the rights of the poor depends upon advocacy .  .  .  .  And fourth, we must generate an understanding that law alone is no answer.  If we thought that courts were the place to resolve every dispute, we should be devoting our attention not to providing legal services to the poor, but to immediately finding thousands of judges for our courts.  .  .  .

It does not take a lawyer to right every wrong.  .  .  .  As an example, let me recall the example of a woman on the West Coast with seven children, supported by welfare.  A fire destroyed the roof of their house.  The woman was too poor to move or repair the damage.  The response of the welfare agency was to cut off her welfare payments. She was living, they said, in unsuitable housing.   It does not take a lawyer to respond to this situation, and it did not.  A young woman who heard about this case took it upon herself to become an advocate – to go to the welfare authorities and indignantly ask what was the legal authority for the suspension of welfare.  The check was issued immediately.  .  .  .  We need more people like the woman we just described.  We need what is in effect a new profession – a profession for advocates for the poor, made up of people from all professions, committed to helping those who are in trouble.  That job is too big — and I would add too important – to be left only to lawyers.  

It is all there – simplification, roles for non-lawyers, law for social change, pro bono.

Without the leadership expressed in those speeches the legal services movement might never have gotten going.  And it is wonderful that the same commitment is expressed by the Attorney General and indeed the Vice President.

And its surely now therefore overdue for us to get more such leadership day-to-day – let’s please have DOJ get a new head for the Access Initiative.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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6 Responses to The Access to Justice Vision Was Articulated Almost 50 Years Ago By Attorneys General Kennedy and Katzenbach.

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  4. Mary Ryan says:

    Separate and apart from this great post, I believe it is imperative that the issues raised by the Attorney General’s statement that:
    “We know from our work that legal aid lawyers can play a unique role in preventing and responding to elder abuse, especially in the devastating area of financial exploitation”
    As a non-lawyer, I have witnessed the art of barratry and champerty show its face in these circumstances. Elderly are vulnerable. In this day and age, and in such a materialistic time in our history, much like the post civil war era, there is so much greed to go around. The Attorney General’s solution must go beyond the solution of legal aide (albeit its part of a good solution) its is a much larger social problem than it seems.. There are family members who have tried to protect their loved ones from zealous attorneys who are hooked into the system, making tons of money. There is a great deal of danger in having pro bono attorneys involved in the lives of elderly and their families, especially when they stand to gain billable hours (in the name of pro bono), real estate and other assets. There ARE a lot of wonderful people in the legal field, but they are not all in it for the reasons.they purport to be. Of course, protective services and citizens alike should follow through with their civic responsibility to watch over our aging population. Reality has it, we’re all going to be in that space someday. The Golden Rule should be fostered. Recently, an individual was sanctioned for exposing an attorney who filed documents in an estate, claimed he represented individuals he did not – to gain standing in the estate. The individual/whistleblower – a self-represented individual – was sanctioned. This story rings to “you can’t fight city hall” when you are s self-represented individual, rich or poor.
    Here are some supporting articles for those in the legal profession may find hard to believe. This is an important issue to share dialogue. Abusing the elderly is an age old issue. Only the elderly these days are more elderly as a whole. Nursing homes, doctors, pharmaceuticals, lawyers and the like all share a piece of the pie (the vulnerable elderly person). Wreaks in madness.

  5. Mary Ryan says:

    I dare say…Another GREAT post! Now…its enforcement.
    “One of the threshold problems in this new era is simply to make rights known. . . . Second, even if rights are known, they can protect and provide little if they are entangled in a maze of technicality, detail, and subsections. Faced with such complexity, even the informed poor, are given the choice of walking through life with a lawyer at their side, or surrendering to the “can’t fight city call” philosophy.”
    Interesting that there was so much emphasis on the poor. These realities reach much farther than to those who are financially poor. Making our rights “known” is a key element in empowering citizens whether rich ore poor. Something to be considered.

  6. Jon Mark says:

    Reblogged this on Texas Poverty Law Blog.

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