‘Commissioning’ Access to Justice
Published 10/10/2018 by Christian Gunther
The creation of ‘Access to Justice Commissions’ (ATJ commissions) in many American states has been a significant development in how access to justice issues are tackled in the USA.
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines ATJ commissions as formal entities constituted by at least representatives of “the state courts, the organised bar and legal aid providers”. However, their membership often extends far beyond this to include: law schools, corporations, social services and even the executive and administrative branches.
Since this institutional model has been subject to considerable praise in a recent ABA report, and the success of individual implementations seems evident (more on this later), we will look at the relevance of these institutions to the UK and specifically for helping LiPs.
ATJ commissions are structured to be umbrella organisations that coordinate relevant members in a given state. They “involve key justice system stakeholders from both the public and private sectors to develop meaningful systemic solutions to the chronic lack of access for disadvantaged members of society”. This involves:
- Assessing the civil legal needs of disadvantaged and low-income people,
- Developing strategies to meet them, and
- Evaluating progress continually
Such a blatant rejection of the ‘silo approach’, where such stakeholders operate independently and without sufficient coordination is a bold move.
Despite several networks, umbrella organisations and professional bodies supporting the access to justice sector in the UK (of which the LIP Network is one) we have still struggled to assimilate all the different needs and experiences of the varied organisations we represent into a ‘sector wide’ approach. As we have outlined, there are advantages of greater coordination in several contexts (have a look at our articles on creating a centralised system of disaster legal aid and on scaling front-line justice services) and the ATJ commissions seems to present us with yet another successful model.
One key advantage of these commissions is that their status as formal entities, which has enabled them to campaign and raise awareness of legal needs and the importance of legal aid provision, predominantly by engaging key decision makers, such as legislatures. This is illustrated by the Commission in Wyoming playing an “instrumental in obtaining legislation to create a funding mechanism for legal aid programs”.
The ‘incubator function’ of Commissions enables them to act as horizon scanners but also empowers them to take cohesive action on key needs and issues addressed by their stakeholders. For instance, the Texan Commission’s approach has ranged from recruiting “technology specialists from large law firms to help upgrade the technological capacity of legal aid programs” to convening representatives of law schools so that they can develop programs, such as an annual Pro Bono Spring Break, to facilitate law students helping low-income Texans.
Assisting LiPs has been a primary focus of the activities of many of the commissions, with most focusing on pursuing judicial system improvements. Again, however, the importance of being able to systematically draw on their membership to devise a variety of effective responses. For example, the Texas ATJ Commission has committees overseeing initiatives for: outlining best practice in advising LiPs, providing reduced-fee panels for those not eligible for legal aid and yet not able to pay for representation, accessing videoconferencing technology, the development of simple fill-in-the-blank forms and the provision of ‘limited scope representation’ where the lawyer handles only circumscribed aspects of a case.
The impact of this system seems to be impressive with the ABA reporting that the ATJ commissions have been able to “adjust to the unique local political, economic and cultural circumstances of 40 US states”, while maintaining a surprisingly similar form. This seems to question the need for representative bodies for each individual type of access to justice service and instead highlight the need for an overarching approach to prioritising, campaigning and undertaking activities.
Linked to this, the formality of the ATJ commission approach, involving paid staff and a committee and sub-committee structure, and the recognition of the significance of its role by official actors - so much so that almost all commissions have been established by state supreme courts - have done much to enhance their status and effectiveness.
With so many organisations, including our own, looking to provide support and push for progress in a stretched sector the need for continued work in partnership continues to be an aim we should be keeping at the forefront of our activities.