The Risks of a Narrow Definition of Access to Justice

There is up at the “Rebel Lawyers” an article titled “Lawyers need to move beyond ‘access to justice’ to close the legal services gap.”  It is by Dan Lear, currently director of industry relations for Avvo.

What it actually argues is really that the single lawyer full representation or assistance model is not working, and that many people do not seek “justice” but rather services such as wills.

He highlights how bad the actual statistics are, and argues that working only on “access to justice is a mistake because the problems of those other than the poor or disadvantaged are different from those of the rest of us, and the solutions they need are different.

What he seems to be doing is defining the access to justice movement as being focused only on what he describes as the “poorest and most disadvantaged.”

Modest-means clients are also different than the access-to-justice clients. For one, while they may not be able to afford traditional full representation legal services but they can pay something. Further, many modest means clients are middle-income individuals, so they’re more likely better educated with better access to technology or other resources that would help them self-educate, receive unbundled legal services delivered partially or fully though technology or online, or navigate the legal system with only limited guidance from an attorney.

Under the traditional “access to justice” model, access-to-services clients would receive extensive one-on-one attention from an attorney to address their legal need. And at no cost.

While I agree with the substance of many of his observations, I find the definition of “access to justice” that he uses confuses the matter, has too narrow a definition of the services provide to even the narrow poor constituency, and makes it look like there is more division than there is.  While I am sure you can find examples of people and plans that define “access to justice” narrowly, I think that these days most of us think of the term in broad terms, and focus on the needs of all who experience barriers such as cost, regardless of actual income.  We see that it is only by understanding these barriers as part of the same underlying problem, that we will get the agreement on solutions.

While there will be differences in the specifics of solutions, and certainly in how they are funded, we need to think of this as one integrated problem.  Maybe, if people do think of the term “access to justice” so narrowly, maybe we need another one.  By the way, the research suggests that the phrase is meaningless to the general public.  Actually, while they are more likely to recognize it, they do not even necessarily think of the phrase “legal aid” as limited to low income people, although for the professional elite it has a long history.  I have suggested alternatives.

So lets see this as part of a big picture, and talk about it that way.



About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Access to Justice Generally, Document Assembly, Forms, Legal Aid, Middle Income, Mixed Model, Systematic Change, Technology, Unbundling. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Risks of a Narrow Definition of Access to Justice

  1. Claudia says:

    I have never heard an attorney that works in a legal non profit firm refer to themselves as “access to justice” attorneys. Those of us who opt to work in non profit legal firms call our ourselves public interest lawyers. The career path is known as public interest lawyering. This term can also include government attorneys who work for the State of Federal government. What a public interest lawyer does is generally take cases that will address issues for an individual or a group (systemic issues) that otherwise would go unaddressed. Depending on the type of program or mission of the legal non profit, the income requirements will vary, and I have seen those go up to 350% FPL (maybe still not enough to be able to hire a private attorney) — for elderly law firms/groups there are no income limits by and large. I agree with you Richard that community based legal services/aid/assistance is a great term to describe the services. The term “access to justice” services–does not resonate–because most of us who choose legal non profit careers are interested in meaningful impactful legal work–not just doing volume as that term implies.

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