As “access to justice” receives more and more attention, and as we start to put in place new structures such as the “communications hub,” perhaps it is time to step back and think about the strengths and weakness of our institutional structure, now essentially 20 years old.
In the mid-1990s, in response to the Gingrich era, community based legal aid moved to a highly decentralized model, with funding fragmented, a deep resistance to national leadership (at least most of the time and in most things) and very varied funding, leadership, alliances, and capacity at the state and local levels.
This had one huge and critical benefit — community based legal aid survived and at the local level is still there to play a very significant role.
But, at the same time, we have paid the price of a relative lack of coordination and leadership at the national level. This is a structural, not a personal issue, and I am not pointing the finger at anyone. Indeed, the new LSC board has made very significant efforts to play a major leadership role with the Pro Bono Initiative, and the Technology Summit — we look forward to their full fruits. Similarly, the ABA Access to Justice Commissions Project (often working with the Chiefs and the National Center for State Courts), has had a huge impact on the setting up of Commissions in so many states.
But, as the successful establishment of the Communications Hub illustrates, there are many functions of overall coordination, planning, communication, research, and institutional and substantive advocacy that desperately need to be strengthened. The post 90’s structure, which has served survivability goals so well, gets in the way of these establishing the systems that should be serving these functions.
In particular, as the state commissions movement illustrates, coordination with other aspects of legal aid — court and bar based, for example, provides a huge and critical opportunity for the development of an integrated 100% access to justice strategy. Without an integrated strategy developed by integrated leadership of all the aspects of legal aid, we will not get there.