The recent launch of the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School is a good illustration of the progress we are making in getting beyond the traditional and incomprehensible “wall,” between civil and criminal ATJ issues. Those barriers have always been more institutional than rational, driven y the desire to protect funding, pension and the like. They have done great harm to the people our institutions are meant to serve. But with the “fines and fees” issues, and our increased understanding of the role the legal system plays in pushing people into poverty, and keeping them there, the schism is indefensible.
As the Center’s launching post, which includes a full video of the launching gathering, featuring retired Chief Justice Lippman and many legal system luminaries, puts it:
The panelists expanded on this theme, discussing: i) how innovative models in the civil access to justice movement can be applied to challenges in the criminal justice system and at the intersection of the civil and criminal justice systems (for example, extending coverage of access to justice commissions to the criminal justice system, increasing pro bono participation in in criminal justice reform and in providing criminal defense services, promoting transparency of courts through unified forms, technology, and new roles for judges and clerks); ii) how collateral consequences of adverse civil judgments draw people into the criminal justice system; iii) how the access to justice framework and vision can advance the reform agenda for court fees, fines and drivers license suspensions that are used to extract money from the poor for minor “civil code violations”; iv) how redefining crimes as civil violations has millions of people facing financial penalties in municipal courts but without the right to counsel previously available in criminal prosecutions; and v) how the judiciary can take steps to provide leadership that responds to the calls for racial justice and greater fairness in our justice institutions.
The specifics listed above are only a beginning, but a great one. It is my great hope that the next, shall we say four, years, will include the creation of a specific agenda for making sure that services needed to protect rights in the civil and criminal systems are not only fully available, but are delivered in an integrated way.
President Clinton — Tear down that wall!
I could not agree more wholeheartedly that “de-siloing” the civil and criminal sides of A2J is just common sense, especially in the area of court debt. Civil court debt work has been part of civil legal aid practice in Iowa, Washington state, and a few other places for a while now. Unfortunately, most civil legal services organizations have yet to develop a practice in this area. That is changing, however, especially as an understanding that much of this work can be done without running afoul of LSC regulations. Also, NLADA has done an excellent job of bringing together both LSC funded and unrestricted civil legal services organizations, as well as national civil rights organizations like the ACLU and the SPLC. I was recently a contributing author, along with others from the NCLC and Columbia Legal Services in Washington, on a joint publication of the National Consumer Law Center and the Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Program – “Confronting Criminal Justice Debt.” It is an in-depth manual for how civil attorneys can do work in this area. It is available for free here: http://www.nclc.org/issues/confronting-criminal-justice-debt.html