January 20th brought great hope. The incoming U.S. Administration’s commitment to norms and democratic values abandoned over the last four years was on full display. From his inaugural address to executive action, President Biden made clear that the United States would once again work with the global community to address humanity’s shared challenges — including pledging to make, “[t]he dream of justice for all… deferred no longer.”
That succinct statement reflects what the access to justice community knows too well: justice has remained elusive for too many, for too long.
In the United States, the majority of individuals with limited means face their civil justice problems without a lawyer, sometimes not even recognizing their need for legal assistance. The most recent statistics from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) released in 2017 are startling: 62–72% of the civil legal problems for which low-income Americans sought help from legal aid programs funded by LSC received inadequate or no legal assistance. And the criminal justice system — where a constitutional right to government-funded counsel for the poor exists — is no better. Public defender offices are underfunded and understaffed, often so severely that they cannot hope to provide their clients with effective representation, many shooting through the annual caseload ceiling recommendations set by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice.
The global justice gap is just as shocking. In 2019, the Task Force on Justice, relying on the World Justice Project’s analysis, found that 5.1 billion people — two-thirds of the world’s population — lack meaningful access to justice.
Notably, all of these data points are pre-pandemic and while we do not know the true scope of the problem today, it is undeniable that legal need has exploded over the past year.
But during the previous administration, the U.S. Government was largely absent from addressing such justice challenges at home and abroad — perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the closing of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice in 2018.
So it is with hope and optimism, that the justice community looks to the Biden-Harris Administration to take on the access to justice crisis and recommit the executive branch to advancing justice for all.
My recent policy paper From the Global to the Local: Leveraging International Engagement to Advance Justice at Home describes some of the successes and strategies in advancing access to justice during the Obama-Biden years and the benefits to government in participating in the global movement on justice. The paper recommends that the current administration:
- Reestablish the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice so it can resume its mission of addressing the crisis in access to justice in the civil and criminal justice systems and its role as the U.S. central authority on access to justice. It is critical to resurrect this office to assist with the federal response to the pandemic and heightened awareness of the racial disparities that run through the justice system.
- Revitalize the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) to ensure federal programs and policies — including those responding to the pandemic — address civil and criminal justice problems. LAIR should reconnect with its mandate to help the United States implement Sustainable Development Goal 16 and recommit to identifying national access to justice indicators for target 16.3.
- Link U.S. domestic priorities to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The appointment of Ambassador Susan Rice — former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Advisor — to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council creates an unprecedented opportunity to better connect the administration’s domestic agenda to its international one.
- Prioritize the United States’ role as a leader in the global movement on equal justice for all by reengaging in justice-related activity tied to Goal 16 at the United Nations, the Open Government Partnership, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Organization of American States, the International Legal Aid Group, and the Justice Action Coalition borne out of the activity of the Task Force on Justice. This should be matched with a commitment to speak with honesty about the challenges to securing justice for all within the United States.
The opportunity for a reset is at hand. The Biden-Harris Administration can ensure that the United States once again works to fulfill our nation’s promise of justice for all by working with all.