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Access to Justice

Author: Rebecca Sandefur

Since the founding of the American Bar Foundation, ABF scholars have been deeply engaged with fundamental questions of access to justice. Faculty Fellow Rebecca L. Sandefur's research on access to justice and civil legal needs continues this tradition through innovative empirical research and symposia that bridges the divides of scholarship and practice. Professor Sandefur's research produces 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.

Legally Empowering Technologies

Legal technology is a rapidly developing field. It includes tools targeted at a range of different user groups, including lawyers, law firms, corporations, in-house legal departments, court systems, community organizations, and individual users who are not trained as attorneys. Some tools do legal work; others track and manage it. Still others are “under the hood,” allowing developers to more easily produce legal tools. With funding from the Open Society Foundations, the Survey of US Legal Technologies sought to identify existing digital technologies that assist with justice problems in US jurisdictions and include among their user groups non-lawyers, whether individual members of the public working on their own justice problems or non-lawyers such as social workers or community organizers working directly with the public.

Read Rebecca L. Sandefur's latest report: Legal Tech for Non-Lawyers: Report of the Survey of US Legal Technologies 

ABF Access to Justice Research Network

In June 2019, the American Bar Foundation hosted a National Science Foundation-supported meeting for emerging scholars in the access to justice field.  Led by scholars from the ABF’s Access to Justice Research Initiative and the National Center for Access to Justice, the convening provided input on participants’ projects and identified next steps for building an interdisciplinary field of access to justice, including the development of a research agenda and a network of researchers. The ABF Access to Justice Research Network supports and disseminates empirically-grounded research that helps practitioners and scholars alike understand the state of the public’s access to justice and what concrete proposals for increasing access are likely to be effective, scalable and sustainable.  The Network’s Members engage in research projects informed by diverse theoretical and empirical traditions. 

On this page, you can find more information about their projects and the results of their research. 

Civil Legal Aid

In the United States, civil justice problems are widespread. Just how widespread cannot be known, as the most recent comprehensive national survey of public experience with civil justice problems and institutions is thirty-five years old. These common problems affect as many as 150 million people each year, and have potentially wide-ranging and powerful impacts on core areas of life such as livelihood, shelter, the care and custody of minor children and dependent adults, neighborhood safety, and environmental conditions. Despite the fact that most of these problems never reach the formal justice system, courts are often overwhelmed by the numbers of civil litigants. Local, state, and federal governments, generous individuals, and private foundations contribute more than $1 billion each year to fund civil legal assistance for low- and moderate-income people, but because we lack research on this topic, we know little about how this activity is organized, what services this funding supports, how existing programs do their work, and whether outreach efforts adequately understand and address the most common barriers to access to these services. 

Roles Beyond Lawyers

Many in the United States who need assistance handling civil justice issues do not obtain it; some call this an “access to justice crisis." Emerging strategies for responding include new “roles beyond lawyers”—people who are not fully trained and qualified attorneys but who are authorized to do some of the work that traditionally only licensed lawyers have been able to do, such as giving legal advice to members of the public. These innovations seek to expand people’s access to rights and remedies under law while at the same time reducing the burdens that courts face when many litigants appear without lawyer representation. The Roles Beyond Lawyers study investigates how and how well these programs work at achieving their goals.


Summaries and findings

ABF Access to Justice Research Network Members
Aug 18, 2020
Access to Civil Justice: Integrating and Advancing Theory and Practice: A Workshop Sponsored by NSF
Jun 18, 2019
Legal Tech for Non-Lawyers: Report of the Survey of US Legal Technologies
Jan 28, 2019
Preliminary Evaluation of the Washington State Limited License Legal Technician Program
Mar 21, 2017
Roles Beyond Lawyers: Evaluation of the New York City Court Navigators Program
Dec 14, 2016
Professor Sandefur presents her Access to Justice research at U.S. Department of Justice meeting
Feb 29, 2016
Roles Beyond Lawyers: New study will open door for examination of how legal needs are met without lawyers
Apr 12, 2015
Professor Sandefur presents her first findings on civil legal needs at 2014 ABA Annual Meeting
Aug 8, 2014
Civil Legal Needs and Public Legal Understanding Handout
Jan 1, 2014
Building Capacity for Access to Justice Research
Dec 7, 2012
Community Needs and Services Study (CNSS)
Jan 1, 2012
Access Across America
Oct 7, 2011

All summaries and findings »


Related documents

NSF- Call for proposals
Dec 17, 2018

All related documents »

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