Posted by: Ray Brescia | March 20, 2015

President Obama Addresses the Justice Gap

On Wednesday, President Obama made forceful remarks at the City Club of Cleveland about the state of the economy, praising his administration’s efforts that have improved the performance of the stock market, reduced the deficit, and lowered the number of uninsured and unemployed.  In addition, during the post-speech Q&A, he responded to a question from Colleen Connor, the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, a non-profit legal services organization that provides free legal assistance to low-income residents in the area.  Connor mentioned that the president had “talked about the importance of everyone playing by the same rules,” but, for Conner, “[u]nfortunately, millions of Americans — because we do not have the right to court-appointed counsel in civil cases — cannot enforce the rules that are out to protect them, whether as tenants, consumers, preventing foreclosure.”  She then asked the following question: “How do you propose that we address that very important issue?”

Here is the president’s response in its entirety:

Well, as you know, we’ve worked hard to continue to support legal aid around the country.  This was a target of slashed budgets early in the previous administration.  We have not fully recovered.  And with the existing Congress, it’s unlikely that we get the kind of bump up that we need.

Two things I think we can do, though, is, one, in addition to the federal government helping, I think we can elicit more from law firms than they currently cough up.  Young lawyers are eager to participate if it’s structured properly.

The other thing is to create in various jurisdictions more efficient, effective civil procedures, potentially, that can streamline the process.  Because a lot of the client that you work with, we don’t need a full-blown court process and filings and motions that’s taking forever.  And oftentimes when people are in desperate straits, let’s say, they’ve been cheated on or something by a landlord, or they bought a product and it turned out to be faulty, and they’re trying to get some relief — they can’t necessarily afford some lengthy process.  And your office should be reserved for the toughest cases.

So are there ways in which we can structure more effective dispute resolution mechanisms?  Now, that’s going to necessarily operate probably jurisdiction by jurisdiction.  But some jurisdictions have come up with some creative ways to fill the holes that arose as a consequence of the legal aid cuts that took place a long time ago.  And what we should do is highlight those best practices, see if we can get them duplicated across the board.

Seeking to maximize the pro bono efforts of private attorneys and making it easier for low-income, working poor and middle class individuals and families to navigate court processes are certainly two approaches that can improve access to justice, but any such efforts must be embedded in a more holistic approach that looks at the need for access to justice as a continuum.  Certain low-cost or low-effort interventions can help address some of the straightforward legal problems of those who cannot afford counsel.  Improvements in technology can also narrow the justice gap in some appropriate settings, and certainly where counsel may not be otherwise available.  Even where some of these efforts are better than no counsel at all, they are still no substitute for having a lawyer in more complex or high stakes situations where an individual’s home may be in jeopardy, or where he or she is seeking lost wages or trying to protect or obtain food stamp benefits or other critical income supports.  It is certainly encouraging, however, that the president recognizes the issue and the need for interventions to help close the justice gap.

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