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 Tonya Robinson, Special Assistant to the President, Justice & Regulatory Policy.
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:
The 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:
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:
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.