By Anne Price, President

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There has never been a more critical, more insistent time to reimagine access to justice. The demand for legal assistance for Americans striving to make ends meet is at an all-time high. Only half of those seeking assistance from federally funded legal aid programs can be served, and fewer than one in five low-income individuals gets the legal help they need.

These are the outcomes of a system in which funding for individual legal services is significantly constrained, as is the range of permissible services that programs can provide. Presently, the national Legal Services Corporation, the largest single funder and lifeblood of the civil legal aid system across the country, is one of the many programs the Trump Administration slated for complete elimination in its draft budget.

In the wake of the Great Recession more than 50 million Americans live in economically disinvested communities beleaguered by high levels of joblessness and financial instability. The Legal Services Corporation estimates that since 2007, 10 million more people qualify for civil legal aid. Not only are more people facing economic uncertainty, but those who are struggling the most face an increasingly punitive state, including the growing use of criminal, state-sponsored sanctions for violations of civil law.

These Americans, especially people of color, are increasingly at risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for unpaid debts and misdemeanors, which leads to further impoverishment and joblessness. And biases and harmful narratives about the “deserving and undeserving” poor and people of color, and more specifically Black Americans, further contribute to harsh penalties and the criminalization of minor offenses.

The legal aid system has been one of our nation’s best defenses against the injustices associated with poverty. Growing out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” through the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in 1965, the founding of the national legal services program was designed to address the root causes of structural inequality and facilitate systems change. These programs, embedded in communities of need, realized some significant reforms, from helping to establish public assistance as an entitlement and vastly improving substandard housing conditions, to increasing income and earnings of the poor.

But over time, the role of many legal aid programs shifted away from challenging inequitable power structures to increasingly providing legal services to individuals. “Access to courts” and “access to justicebecame the dominant concepts and rhetorical drivers informing the delivery of legal aid. Of course, the notion of access to justice, in which people have greater knowledge, skills, resources, and services to address their civil and family legal issues, is an important principle. But it does not ensure justice in and of itself and does not go far enough to meet the challenges of today.

As Aneel L. Chablani, Director of Advocacy at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., asserts, “….access to the courts means little if behind those courtroom doors, the justice system imposes upon the poor the consequences of unjust and unchallenged laws and policies. Additionally, the overemphasis on access-to-justice initiatives risks masking the inequities embedded within the justice system itself.”

So what does reimagining justice look like?

For Aurora Martin, former Executive Director of Columbia Legal Services and founder of PopUp Justice, reimagining justice means looking beyond the courts, and mere access to legal representation, to fundamentally transform systems through greater community empowerment and democratization. In our latest podcast, Aurora shares her bold, creative vision of justice and innovation grounded in community, culture, and technology, and it is inventive, inclusive visions like this that we need to help drive change in the field.

Having worked for justice as part of a statewide legal aid program for many years, I realized I wanted to imagine justice differently — beyond the courtrooms, beyond the halls of power, and into the communities we serve.” - Aurora Martin, Founder of PopUp Justice

At Insight we believe a reimagined access-to-justice approach requires us to more closely examine ways in which the law operates for struggling families and people of color through legal systems that are recreating oppression, subjugation, and discrimination.

Research shows, for example, that in civil child support enforcement proceedings, judges, commissioners, and child support attorneys often fail to recognize how racial inequities shape work opportunities for Black men. As a result, not only do these actors hold Black men to a nearly impossible standard, they also reinforce negative stereotypes about Black masculinity.

We also believe legal aid should be more closely tied to social justice movements. Greater partnerships between lawyers, advocates, and grassroots organizations are proving to be to an effective approach to systemic advocacy.

Finally, we will need new narratives that address the strong role that race and “deservedness” play in shaping legal outcomes.

Like the original vision for legal aid, and new initiatives like that of PopUp Justice, we need a reformed justice system that is community-centered, community-driven, and true to its claims of fair and equal justice for all.

Our vision of justice is one that is not blind but perceptive — to our experiences, our needs, our humanity.

Written by

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

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