Presidential Memorandum on Access to Justice and Legal Aid Interagency Roundtale is Major Milestone in Creating the National ATJ Mosaic

A big deal.  The President has put in place a Presidential Memorandum on access to justice and the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR).  This joins the Conference of Chiefs/COSCA 100% Resolution as the second huge piece in the national Mosaic of vision, leadership and coordination.  While the President’s Memorandum does not explicitly use the phrase 100%, the formal message of the Memorandum is unambiguous and makes it a fitting partner and amplifier, with the heft in the Federal government to be of real force in moving things forward.

First the Memorandum establishes the goal and the policy:

This Nation was founded in part on the promise of justice for all. Equal access to justice helps individuals and families receive health services, housing, education, and employment; enhances family stability and public safety; and secures the public’s faith in the American justice system. Equal access to justice also advances the missions of an array of Federal programs, particularly those designed to lift Americans out of poverty or to keep them securely in the middle class.

Note the multi-class approach, broad appeal, and linkage to Federal agency missions.

After detailing the need and problem, the Memorandum goes on to highlight the coordination need:

By encouraging Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs, the Federal Government can enhance access to justice in our communities.

Then it goes on to list the agencies that are to participate or to be invited to participate, as well as how LAIR is to be chaired:

Membership. (a) The Attorney General and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, or their designees, shall serve as the Co-Chairs of LAIR, which shall also include a representative from each of the following executive departments, agencies, and offices:

(i) the Department of State;
(ii) the Department of the Treasury;
(iii) the Department of Justice;
(iv) the Department of the Interior;
(v) the Department of Agriculture;
(vi) the Department of Labor;
(vii) the Department of Health and Human Services;
(viii) the Department of Housing and
Urban Development;
(ix) the Department of Education;
(x) the Department of Veterans Affairs;
(xi) the Department of Homeland Security;
(xii) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission;
(xiii) the Corporation for National and Community
Service;
(xiv) the Office of Management and Budget;
(xv) the United States Agency for International Development;
(xvi) the Administrative Conference of the
United States;
(xvii) the National Science Foundation; and
(xviii) such other executive departments, agencies, and offices as the Co-Chairs may, from time to time, designate.

(b) The Co-Chairs shall invite the participation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Trade Commission, Legal Services Corporation, and Social Security Administration, to the extent consistent with their respective statutory authorities and legal obligation

Only those who have served in governmental bureaucracies, perhaps only those who have served in the Federal one, can appreciate the symbolism, value, power, and potential of having such a group co-chaired by the Director of the Domestic Policy Council and the Cabinet member most responsible.  This puts it right into the White House, and indeed very near the top.  According to Wikipedia, the DPC is chaired by the President, and attended by the Vice President and most of the Cabinet, including the AG, of course).

Just think of the huge collective impact that these agencies have on access to justice, how much money flows through them, how many adjudicatory procedures they manage or fund, and what a difference as they start to converge behind an access to justice vision and mission.

The tasks are really as we might have written them (and its rare that I can say anything like that!):

(i) improve coordination among Federal programs that help the vulnerable and underserved, so that those programs are more efficient and produce better outcomes by including, where appropriate, legal services among the range of supportive services provided;
(ii) increase the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status;
(iii) develop policy recommendations that improve access to justice in Federal, State, local, tribal, and international jurisdictions;
(iv) assist the United States with implementation of Goal 16 of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and
(v) advance relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis of civil legal aid and indigent defense, and promulgate best practices to support the activities detailed in section 4(a)(i)-(iv).

Notice the combination of the general (“increase the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status“) and the quite specific (“improve coordination among Federal programs that help the vulnerable and underserved, so that those programs are more efficient and produce better outcomes by including, where appropriate, legal services among the range of supportive services provided“)

Notice also the link to Goal 16 of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, essentially putting on the record our commitment to “implement[]” that goal.  See also the reporting requirement discussed below

Notice also the advancement of research, data collection and analysis, combination of civil and criminal with respect to research, and the development of best practices.

The annual reporting requirement to the President appears to begin to hold agencies generally accountable, and underlines the wisdom of those who have argued for the value of UN Goal 16 for moving the US agenda forward. (

The LAIR shall report annually to the President on its success in achieving its mission, consistent with the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The report shall include data from participating members on the deployment of Federal resources that foster LAIR’s mission.

The required reporting on the “deployment of Federal resources that foster LAIR’s mission,” is likely to be particularly important in ensuring that the Federal agencies listed above keep their eye on the ball, and assign staff to move things forward.  Who wants their report to the President to be “No progress,” “no resources has as yet been deployed,” or the like.  And, who wants to submit that language to their Cabinet member or other leader for inclusion in the Report.  That’s how you move things in the Federal government.

It may be important to note that as in the announcement of the LAIR Toolkit, the Memorandum appears to use the phrase “legal aid” in its broad access to justice sense, potentially, as appropriate, including courts and other agencies that can provide a broad range of legal aid ATJ services — Quoting again from the Memorandum “gaps in the availability of legal aid — including legal representation, advice, community education, and self-help and technology tools — for America’s poor and middle class threaten to undermine the promise of justice for all and constitute a crisis worthy of action by the Federal Government.”  (Check the Toolkit announcement for the language that document uses: “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.”

Finally, note that leadership responsibility is placed exactly where it should be:

The Director of the Office for Access to Justice in the Department of Justice, or his or her designee, shall serve as Executive Director of LAIR and shall, as directed by the Co-Chairs, convene regular meetings of LAIR and supervise its work. The Office for Access to Justice staff shall serve as the staff of LAIR.

And, do not miss the huge mission and bureaucratic implications of this:

The LAIR members are encouraged to provide support, including by detailing personnel, to LAIR

OMG, are we starting to build a permanent ATJ group with links into all the agencies that can make a difference?

Huge congratulations to the DOJ ATJ Director and staff.

And, what organization or organizations are next to become part of the Mosaic.   How do we help them along?  And, what a difference this is going to make to the LSC mission and capacity.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Access to Justice Generally, Budget Issues, Discrimination, Funding, International Cooperation, Outcome Measures, Research and Evalation, Tools, White House. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Presidential Memorandum on Access to Justice and Legal Aid Interagency Roundtale is Major Milestone in Creating the National ATJ Mosaic

  1. Cathy Carr says:

    I agree that this is a great symbolic step. As someone who spent a lot of time in the field trying to deal with federal grants, I will say that the reality of getting federal money from this range of bureaucracies is a hard one. Federal grants are best handled by big organizations specifically designed to apply for federal work and meet the compliance requirements, without their own driving mission or sustained staff. We need LSC dollars and other general legal aid funding most. That said, I too commend the DOJ and LSC and White House people behind this accomplishment. Cathy

  2. From a strictly policy perspective, this is an impressive document. The mandate of LAIR opens quite a wide door on access to justice issues. The envisioned broad collaboration is encouraging, but also a bit of a risk. I’ve worked with quite a few governments, though mostly in middle-income countries, and am slightly concerned by the possibility of broad public sector inertia. I am less familiar with US federal structures – maybe linking LAIR with the White House will help overcome this hurdle.

    I am particularly interested in point (iv) of Section 4 on the mission of LAIR. Very encouraging to see an emphasis on evidence-based research to support reforms, rather than simply jumping on the usual knee-jerk reactions in the access to justice world. It will be interesting to see how exactly this is done, and am hoping non-governmental actors will have a strong role to play in designing and implementing the research agenda. And that international experience in this regard will not be ignored.

    Looking forward to updates on this agenda.

  3. Mark Marquardt says:

    Sorry, trying to bite my tongue…but I have a hard time mustering “OMG”-level enthusiasm for a policy memo that lays out laudable but vague goals for creaky bureaucracies to pursue at the tail end of an administration and references a U.N. resolution as a driving force for change. Also, wake me when LSC, HUD, DoJ, etc. streamline their application and monitoring processes, so that legal aid grant recipients are not spending ten cents out of every dollar on regulatory compliance and reporting.

    Though as always, I look forward to subsequent posts that prove me wrong…

    • richardzorza says:

      Look, I agree at the general level about bureaucracy, but having it on your side is surely much much better than the opposite, or even apathy.
      More importantly, what other strategy is there to get to 100% access to justice services except changing institutional directions. It takes a long time to turn a battleship around,but you can not do it without the Captain and senior officers on your side.

  4. Claudia says:

    This is so exciting! I can’t wait to read the Annual Report to the President on Access to Justice in the United States,. This is a great first step in dealing with the lack of a non partisan policy body empowered to implement policy on access to justice across all Federal agencies and other relevant agencies. It is very encouraging to see that research will be part of this group’s mandate and the inclusion of the NSF. I blogged about the vaccum in 2011 here: https://accesstojustice.net/2011/12/30/claudia-johnson-blogs-on-legal-services-policy-research-and-the-elephant-in-the-room/–calling the vacum “the elephant in the room”. It will be interesting to see how the resources for LAIR are allocated and to hear what the first report will include. I imaging it will be an initial State of Access to Justice in the US 2015, with then some recommendations on inter agency collaboration, promising practices, and laying out a work plan for 2016, or maybe 17. I hope eventually this group will have the capacity to make recommendations on policy the President and maybe even Congress. This is a huge step forward for our communities in need of Justice.

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