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Accessing Justice in Contemporary America: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

"Accessing Justice in Contemporary America: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study" was presented during the 2014 ABA Annual Meeting in Boston on August 8, 2014.

(from left to right): Hon. Denise Johnson, Rebecca Sandefur, Mary Ryan, Helaine M. Barnett, Hon. Earl Johnson, Jr., and James J. Sandman

In contemporary market democracies, law reaches deeply into many aspects of daily life. Civil justice problems are common and widespread. For many members of the American public, such troubles emerge at the intersection of civil law and everyday adversity,  involving work, finances, insurance, pensions, wages, benefits, shelter, and the care of young children and dependent adults, among other core matters. Though these different types of problems affect different aspects of people’s lives and concern different kinds of relationships, they are defined by a central important quality: they are justiciable. They have civil legal aspects, raise civil legal issues, have consequences shaped by civil law, and may become objects of formal legal action.

Professor Sandefur will report on findings from a new survey of the civil justice experiences of the public, conducted in a middle-sized Midwestern city. The study community is typical of cities of moderate size, and the sample represents the entire adult population. The findings provide a contemporary picture of Americans' experience with civil justice situations. The findings reveal that civil justice problems are common, experienced by all segments of the population -- rich and poor, men and women, all races and ethnicities. Respondents to the survey report sometimes significant consequences of their experiences with civil justice problems, including lost income, stress-related ill health, and loss of confidence. In responding to these problems, Americans typically handle them on their own or with the help of family or friends. Few problems are taken to lawyers or resolved in courts.

Research Presenter

Rebecca L. Sandefur, Faculty Fellow, American Bar Foundation, Chicago, IL

Associate Professor of Sociology and Law and Director of Graduate Studies in Sociology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign                                                     


Helaine M. Barnett, Past President,  Legal Services Corporation, 2004-2009

Chair, Chief Judge’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York

Adjunct Professor of Law, New York University Law School

Justice Earl Johnson, Jr. (Ret), Visiting Scholar, University of Southern California Gould Law School and Western Center on Law and Poverty, Los Angeles, CA

Mary Ryan, Partner, Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP, Boston, MA

Chair, ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service

James J. Sandman, President, Legal Services Corporation, Washington, D.C.


Hon. Denise R. Johnson (ret.), Vermont Supreme Court

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