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Legally Speaking


Issue: February, 2009
Author: Leigh Anne G. Manlove

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Access to Justice – A National Perspective

The phrase “access to justice” has, over the last decade, developed great meaning within the legal community. Simply stated, access to justice is the idea that all people, regardless of their ability to pay, should be able to seek legal redress. More often than any of us should be comfortable with , that ideal gives way to the reality that those who cannot afford a lawyer are barred from the courthouse. The Access to Justice (ATJ) movement grew out of this tension – reconciling the ideals of our profession and our system with the barriers that confront the people for whom the system exists.

Among states that have created formal mechanisms for addressing barriers to the legal system, like an Access to Justice Commission, significant improvements and accomplishments have been achieved, including: increased funding, improved quality of delivery, increased service levels, improved involvement of attorneys, judges and the public, coordinated effort by providers (thereby minimizing duplicative efforts and better utilizing resources) and ultimately, a better outcome for the clients. In order to achieve these results, there had to be a deep and meaningful change—the kind of change that could only come from an Access to Justice Commission.

According to the final report of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Committee, “a key element of a successful campaign for change is a broad-based coalition of influential leaders across the state, including state agencies, the legal profession, legal service providers, law schools, industry, and the citizenry, with significant leadership from the courts, the legislature, the governor’s office, and the bar.”

These Access to Justice entities, charged with evaluating the system, improving its deficiencies and maintaining its core functions, actually work. These aren’t just groups of bleeding hearts standing in a circle singing Kumbaya – they are people who make things happen. In states as different geographically as they are politically, concrete changes happened when an ATJ group advocated for it. In Illinois and in New Mexico, legislative inroads were made that resulted in substantial increases for state funding for civil legal aid for the poor.

ATJ Commissions haven’t been satisfied with asking for increased state funding. There are other changes, beyond the financial realm, that have been successfully implemented around the country. They include: identifying the most pressing legal needs of clients, changing attorney rules regarding pro bono and trust accounts, strategically targeting resources to maximize results for the largest number of clients, involving community social service providers, increasing the visibility and importance of unmet civil legal needs, encouraging the judiciary to take a vital role, developing a cohesive and cooperative environment among existing providers, educating the client population about their rights and the existence of legal services, creating self-help resource centers within the courts, developing innovative technologies, and involving the private sector.

Access to Justice Commissions are a means by which states can grapple with the practicality of the law while still honoring its ideals. The law today - the way it is practiced, its everyday application to the person on the street - is a very different thing than it was when Wyoming joined in the Union in 1890. Here in the Cowboy state, as is the case nationally, successful change will only happen through the efforts of an Access to Justice Commission.

“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the façade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society…it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.” - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.

Leigh Anne G. Manlove graduated with a BA in English & Communications from the University of Wyoming in 1993. She worked in the public and private sectors before graduating from UW College of Law in 2000. She was admitted to the Wyoming State Bar in 2000 and began her career with the Wyoming State Bar Foundation, where she has advocated and agitated on equal justice issues for the last nine years.

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