To be honest and direct, even though the first White HHouse-LAIR Annual Report (Legal Aid InterAgency Rountable) is “must reading,” it might feel at first like it might be hard to read, because it’s difficult not to think in terms of opportunities lost. (Fact Sheet Here.)
So, I am going to suggest how to read it as an optimistic resource for the future, and as a guidepost for how the access to justice movement can move forward in both short and long terms, regardless of changes in political climate.
Indeed, the immense achievements of LAIR under the leadership of DOJ’s Karen Lash, with the strong support of Access to Justice Counselor Lisa Foster, and AG and the White House Policy Council, reminds us that those achievements are not necessarily going to be reversed, and more important, that if we think and act right cam be continued and built on, although probably not necessarily in the same way.
As the Report says:
The Report demonstrates that the 22 members of WH-LAIR have taken significant steps to integrate civil legal aid into their programs designed to serve low-income and vulnerable individuals, where doing so can improve their effectiveness and increase access to justice. The strategies that agencies deploy to advance WH-LAIR’s mission largely fall into four categories: 1) leveraging resources to strengthen Federal programs by incorporating legal aid; 2) developing policy recommendations that improve access to justice; 3) facilitating strategic partnerships to achieve Federal enforcement and outreach objectives; and 4) advancing evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis.
The Report as a whole reflects the broad definition of legal aid made by the President in his Memorandum establishing the Rountable:
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. But 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.
It states, at page 6, that “Civil legal aid is provided by nonprofit organizations, pro bono volunteers, law schools, and court-based programs.”
I encourage all to read the report for examples most close to your heart — and those you are seeking to persuade to keep on track with the access to justice agenda.
Perhaps most key in this area is Part II of the Report which discuses priority by priority, the work of LAIR in bringing the access to justice perspective to the promotion of existing and largely bi-partisan Federal priorities, and also its work to meet the needs of groups that are in need of special protection.
More generally, let me suggest that the Report is a guideline for the future in the following critical ways:
1. A Bipartisan Set of Goals
The goals and achievements of LAIR are not in service of elements of the Obama agenda that is seen as controversial. Rather they support goals and policies that are agreed (although it would be false to assert than there are never differences about how to support those goals.)
2. A Broadly Supported Set of Means
The LAIR approach is broad, and includes innovations and ideas that come from a wide variety of political perspectives. That they are highly similar to the Conference of Chief Justices Resolution underlines this key fact. They are not limited to traditional “lawyer first” approaches.
3. Deeply Embedded in Non-Controversial Systems of Long Standing
For example, making sure that Child Support Enforcement is integrated with access is not only uncontroversial, but reflects cooperation with a system that reaches into every state and multiple agencies within those states.
4. This Is About “Unrigging” the System
Whatever you may feel about this election, is is impossible to reject the idea that the people called for the system to be “unrigged.” The LAIR Report shows that there are lots of ways that government can make sure that the voice of the people, both individually and collectively, can be heard. Moreover, the courts should be changed so that they can become one of the forums in which there is open debate about the form that the “unrigging” should take place. Without access to justice and legal aid, broadly defined, that can not happen.
5. Because of Its Variety, an Integrated LAIR Approach is about all the Excluded, including the Middle Class
One of the primeval screams of the election was from those who felt squeezed in the middle. Yet the broad definition of legal aid, reflected also in the Justice for All Strategic Planning Initiative, means that everyone who is at risk of exclusion can and should be helped by LAIR-type initiatives.
6. An Approach That is Highly Applicable to the States
As yet,the integration of agencies into access to justice has hardly even started in most states, and, perhaps most importantly of all, this is a huge opportunity, regardless of what happens in Washington. While Access to Justice Commissions are wonderful, they tend to be limited to integrating the courts, bar and traditional legal aid, and the participation even of administrative agencies is highly limited.
The Federal model has shown the extent to which government priorities can be advanced by integrating the access to justice/legal aid perspective, and that applies, with perhaps even more force, at the state and even local level.
Let’s hope ways can be found to make sure that happens
So, read the Report, cheer it on, and use it as a planning tool, whether you are at state, local or national levels.