One of the clearest messages from the communications research is that the best — perhaps the only — way to get public support for increased resources for court and community based legal aid above the needed 50% threshold is to emphasize the non-means tested services that are available to all.
Perhaps preeminent among those are the online information and forms that are now available respectively in all or most states with help from court and community based legal aid in those states.
Surely getting those services far better known would not only result in more people getting access to justice, but also make court and community based legal aid much more widely apprecaited, and thus impact the ability of the providers to get the resources they need. I can promise you that if a governmental liaison person goes into a legislative office and starts talking about legal aid, and the rep or staffer says “isn’t that the thing that is advertized on the sides of the buses and in the subways?” it is going to be a wholly different — and much more successful — conversation. The ad, hopefully free, on the side of the bus includes a box saying something like: “These free resources are made available by your local court and community based legal aid programs.”
The original vision for the websites, developed well over ten years ago was of an integrated system that could be linked and marketed to multiple constituencies. That potential of integration has not been fully realized, making such leveraging much less sucessful than it might be, particularly on the public marketing side. Moreover, the whole system would be much more helpful if there were better content development and updating processes in place.
Coordinated activity by most of the major stakeholder is needed to empower a broad marketing and PR campaign for these tools . Steps that might be taken to turn this into a system that would position legal aid (broadly defined) as a much more valued resource for all might include:
- National, state and local community legal aid funders using their leverage and resources to ensure that content and tools are as usable, up to date, and appealing as possible. This means you, IOLTA and LSC.
- Court based legal aid funders ensuing the development of appropriate content. This means you, courts, NCSC, and SJI.
- Access to Justice Commissions and others working to ensure that the content from all their stakeholders is accessible through integrated portals, and preventing duplication whenever possible. (I hope all Commissions have a group working on this coordination, and reporting regularly to the larger bodies)
- At the national level, national programs working to partner with a wide variety of stakeholders such as the Federal Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, AARP, faith based-organizations, United Way/211, unions, etc., to ensure that the public knows that these resources are available and reliable. This again involves both court and community based legal aid.
- At the local level, the Commissions working with equivalent local stakeholders, including state agencies, to spread such knowledge.
- At all levels, stakeholders coordinating the development of public media campaigns using free resources to spread the word.
You will notice that the key word is “coordination.” This is not something for one stakeholder to take on, with the rest cheering them on. Rather this only works if almost all stakeholders agree on a common agenda and elements, perhaps with each taking the leadership on some of those elements, and all getting actual concrete support from the rest in its design and implementation.
All of which raises a broader point. More and more we have to create the ways for stakeholders to cooperate in such coordinated activities. We can not get to 100% access without such true multi-element cooperation. Maybe a program to massively expand the quality and use of the online tools for all can be a pilot for such coordination.
Disclosures: I am on the Advisory Board of the Voices for Civil Justice, that sponsored the Communications Research, I helped draft the plan for integrated portals, and I have been a consultant and adviser to Pro Bono Net, which operates a significant part of the info and tools system now in place.