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Access to Justice

From the founding of the American Bar Foundation, ABF scholars have been deeply engaged with fundamental questions of access to justice. The ABF’s access to justice project, Pursuing Law’s Promise, continues this tradition through innovative empirical research and symposia that bridge the divides of scholarship and practice. The activities of Pursuing Law’s Promise produce new knowledge that informs our basic understanding of law and legal processes and is a powerful resource for policy makers and service providers as they seek to respond to the legal needs of the public today.

2016 Findings

Professor Sandefur presents her 'Access to Justice' research at U.S. Department of Justice meeting

Professor Rebecca L. Sandefur, a Faculty Fellow at the ABF, spoke about her research on public experience with civil justice problems and civil legal aid at a meeting held at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Feb. 29, 2016. The meeting was co-chaired by Loretta Lynch, Attorney General of the United States, and Cecilia Munoz, director of President Obama's Domestic Policy Council. The event was attended by cabinet-level representatives from over 20 federal departments, including the Departments of State, Labor, the Treasury, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Homeland Security. The convening at the DOJ was the inaugural meeting of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, created by presidential memorandum in September 2015. Professor Sandefur's appearance coincided with the release of the DOJ's Civil Legal Aid Research Workshop Report, to which she was a contributing expert. Professor Sandefur holds a joint appointment in the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Links: White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR): Civil Legal Aid Reseach Workshop Report

2015 Findings

Roles Beyond Lawyers: New study opens door for examination of how legal needs are met without lawyers

Increasing Access to Justice Through Expanded “Roles Beyond Lawyers”: Preliminary Evaluation And Classification Frameworks

Daily around the country, thousands of people arrive at court not only without a lawyer to represent them but without an understanding of where to go, what to do, or what will happen while they are there. People are particularly likely to appear without attorney representation, or as “self-represented litigants,” in evictions, family and domestic matters, and debt collection cases.

The American Bar Foundation and the National Center for State Courts have released the first product from a joint evaluation research project investigating “roles beyond lawyers.” Funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, the project investigates a key emerging strategy for responding to the access to justice crisis: a growing number of experiments involving new roles for individuals who are now authorized to provide certain specific services traditionally supplied only by lawyers. Such initiatives provide a range of services to litigants appearing without attorneys, sometimes called “self-represented litigants,” from information to moral support to legal advice. This first report presents initial versions of conceptual frameworks for understanding and evaluating the effectiveness and sustainability of these programs.

For more information on this study, contact ABF Faculty Fellow Rebecca Sandefur at .

Click on the cover image below to access the report.

2014 Findings

On Friday, August 8, 2014 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, ABF Faculty Fellow Rebecca Sandefur released the first findings from her landmark study on civil legal needs in the USA today. Read the new findings here.

Civil Legal Needs and Public Legal Understanding Handout

Click here to access this handout, prepared by Rebecca Sandefur. 

Access Across America 

Access Across Americais the first-ever state-by-state portrait of the services available to assist the U.S. public in accessing civil justice. For the nation as a whole and individually for the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the report documents six components of contemporary access to civil justice:

  • Eligibility.  Who is eligible for different services, including means-tested and other targeted services, as well as free services available to the general public.
  • Delivery. How access services are delivered, including court-based services, neighborhood offices, and telephone- and web-provided legal advice, information and assistance. 
  • Connecting with assistance.  How people can connect with access to civil justice resources, such as through hotlines, local offices, court-based programs, web interfaces, and co-location with other kinds of services, such as medical or social services.  
  • Funding.  How access programs are funded.  
  • Coordination.  How access services and funding are coordinated, including through lead agencies, state access commissions, central funders, and informal networks.
  • Emerging definitions of access.  How ethical rules are changing to create new forms of both subsidized and market-based sources of civil legal assistance, such as through limited scope lawyers’ services, collaborative lawyering, and the availability of nonlawyer legal technicians.

To download the full report, click here. To download the Executive Summary, click on the cover image below:

Building Capacity for Access to Justice Research

In December 2012, the ABF hosted a workshop, Access to Civil Justice: Re-Envisioning and Reinvigorating Research. This workshop will brought together researchers and people from the field to develop and begin work on a new research agenda for access to civil justice. Attendees included staff from institutions of civil justice, such as judges, leaders from the organized bar, and legal services practitioners as well as scholars from law, statistics and the social and behavioral sciences. The convening sought to synthesize and coordinate existing research activity and to generate new research activity, including research that can inform policy.

Call for posters from the December 2012 event.

A smaller group of researchers and legal aid practitioners convened in November 2013 to discuss applying for grant funding for access to justice initiatives.

Community Needs and Services Study

With support from the National Science Foundation (SES-1123507), the American Bar Foundation launched a new, comprehensive civil justice study, the Community Needs and Services Study (CNSS). The study, which will run for two years, investigates simultaneously public experience with civil justice problems and the resources available to assist people in responding to them. The Study focuses on a core set of commonly experienced problems surrounding issues such as personal finances, housing and family relationships. These problems are carefully selected to be those that have civil legal aspects, raise civil legal issues and have consequences shaped by civil law.  The CNSS is the first-ever study to pair an investigation of the civil justice problems people experience with an investigation of the legal and non-legal resources available to assist them in handling those problems.

Contact Rebecca Sandefur, .