October 8, 2008

Access to Justice Report Released: More Progress Needed!

Last night the Access to Justice Commission released its report (executive summary here in PDF) on the disturbing state of legal representation in civil litigation for DC residents.

The event certainly drew some big names, including chief judges and Mayor Fenty (who made a strong pledge of his commitment to the objectives outlined by the report). And being that it was a fancy law firm hosting the event, copious amounts of beer and booze were available even to attendees who were not, in fact, lawyers. Nevertheless! Among all the various drinks and speeches, I walked away with one clear quote in mind:

“There’s good news and bad news; the bad news is that there’s not enough good news.”

Indeed. Since its inception a few years ago, the Access to Justice Commission has not only illuminated the great lack of legal resources available to the 20 some-odd percent of DC residents living at the poverty level; it has also successfully lobbied for millions of dollars of increased funding from the city for expanded legal resources for the poor. Certainly important steps forward have been taken, and many of the folks in the audience last night deserve accolades for their efforts.

Still, the scale of the problem – as the report details – is staggering. 98% of tenants in DC’s landlord-tenant court, and 98% of parties involved in domestic violence cases, are currently left to navigate the legal system without counsel. Obviously, poor tenants and victims of domestic violence are some of the most vulnerable people in our community, and the Access to Justice report reveals in great depth the way that the civil justice system as it currently stands all too often reinforces the conditions of poverty.

I thought it was interesting that pretty much everyone present at the event acknowledged that there will never be enough resources to actually solve the problem (short of a “civil Gideon,” that is – and nobody seems to be holding their breath on that one). Instead, the objective is to figure out how to make the limited resources have the most impact in improving the ability of low-income and impoverished people to find some form of counsel.

On that note, Bread for the City is proud to feature several programs that are good examples of the sort of incremental expansions of access to justice as laid out by the report. Most notably, there’s the Attorney of the Day project (also and less flashily known as “Court Based Legal Services Project”) that we operate with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and Neighborhood Legal Services. Funding for that project was in fact secured by the efforts of the Access to Justice Commission. By placing lawyers in landlord-tenant court on a daily basis, this program helps provide guidance during the most critical first moments of litigation.

Other Bread for the City-related programs, like the Employment Justice Center and the recent opening of a “family court satellite center” in our Southeast facility, are positive examples of innovative steps that open up points of entry for those who might otherwise get lost in the impenetrable legal system.

We’ll continue to shed light on these programs here on the blog. In the meantime, many thanks to the Access to Justice Commission for its ongoing efforts to draw attention to this important issue.

See more coverage of the report here and here.

No comments: