Pro Bono News

In Justice Crisis, Access to Commissions' Spread Sparks Change

Sunday, March 10, 2019

In Justice Crisis, Access to Commissions' Spread Sparks Change

"In Illinois, homeowners who are facing foreclosure but without the means to hire an attorney were given a stronger chance against lawyered-up banks thanks to simplified and standardized court filings.

In New York, tenants on the brink of eviction but similarly unable to afford a lawyer can take advantage of court employees tasked with helping self-represented litigants navigate the court system.

A driving force behind both of those changes? State-based alliances with a focus on access to justice.

Access to justice commissions, which did not exist before the 1990s and have become increasingly common across the country in recent years, are helping the justice system address a painful reality — more and more people facing life-altering legal issues can’t afford lawyers.

“I think little by little everybody involved in the judicial system began to understand the system was only working for people who could afford lawyers,” said Mary Lavery Flynn, a long-time access to justice proponent who recently compiled a report for the American Bar Association on the commissions. “They realized we had to do something.”

Currently, 36 states, as well as Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, have access to justice commissions. Twenty-five years ago, there were zero. Additionally, five other states have entities other than commissions that are devoted exclusively to addressing access to justice issues.

The commissions often include judges, court administrators, lawyers, representatives from legal aid organizations, members of legal academia and business leaders. Some have full-time staff, while others operate entirely through the help of volunteers. Many commissions are set up by the state’s supreme court, while others are independent of the court system.

But despite their differences, the commissions share a common goal.

“These commissions are wholly committed to making our justice system work better, to making it more accessible to more people, and to making sure that cases that are filed are decided on the merits of the case and not on whether one side or the other has enough money to hire an attorney,” Flynn said..."

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