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Access to Legal Services May Improve Under Biden

On May 18, 2021, President Biden signed a presidential memo to expand access to legal counsel, legal representation and the courts. The Biden administration’s executive action could improve inequalities in the justice system and ensure that more minorities, those with low incomes and other vulnerable Americans have better access to legal services. Affordable and timely legal assistance can make a powerful difference in a person’s life. 

The presidential memo directed the Department of Justice (DOJ) to re-establish the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) and restore some functions of the now-closed Access to Justice Office. The roundtable was launched as a White House initiative by former President Obama in 2015. Its focus was to examine evidence-based solutions to ensure justice was accessible to more Americans. LAIR also created a partnership between medical and legal partners to decrease health costs, improve health outcomes and ensure those representing themselves in court were aware of the legal requirements and legal processes.

The White House has stressed that this roundtable’s first priority is to study the impact of COVID-19 on Americans’ access to justice, both in civil and criminal matters. Biden noted in the memo that the pandemic “has further exposed and exacerbated inequities in our justice system,” as access to legal services was significantly impacted. He continued that the “… exacerbated inequalities in our justice system…have touched the lives of many persons in this country, particularly low-income people and people of color.”

Re-establishing the LAIR is consistent with President Biden’s public commitment to reforming the criminal justice system while advancing racial equity. As part of the proposed budget, $1.5 billion is earmarked for grants to strengthen state and local criminal justice systems, including additional support for public defenders. By investing in public defenders, President Biden, a former public defender himself, is optimistic that this investment will ensure minorities, low-income and vulnerable populations will have access to the legal system, should they require legal services. As civil legal aid and public defenders have been understaffed, under-resourced and unable to reach those in need of legal services, these reforms and the supporting grants and budget will help improve access to counsel in criminal and civil matters.

While the memo does not explicitly re-open the Access to Justice Office, Attorney General Merrick Garland is tasked to submit a plan on expanding access to justice for more Americans within 120 days. The office began in 2010 by then-Attorney General Eric Holder. Formally established under President Obama in 2016, the office focused on fine enforcement, overcoming language barriers in the courts and within civil legal aid and assisting those who cannot afford legal counsel on their own.

Closed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018, senior DOJ officials indicated that the office’s mission was duplicating the role of public defenders. Prior to the office being shuttered in 2018, the office’s resources were shrinking.

As the DOJ is prioritizing police reforms at all levels of law enforcement, this commitment to ensure all Americans have access to justice is welcomed. The DOJ is also focusing on combating racial discrimination and civil rights. 

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In 2017, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans report was issued by the Legal Services Corporation, a non-profit that funds civil legal aid for low-income Americans. This report used data from the 2017 Justice Gap Measurement Survey of low-income households. 71% of low-income households have experienced at least one civil legal problem in the previous 12 months. These legal problems ranged from disability, income maintenance, education, rental housing, finances, health and children and custody. Unfortunately, only 20% of low-income Americans sought help from a legal professional. A staggering 86% of low-income Americans received inadequate or no professional legal assistance.

The announcement of restoring LAIR could provide more Americans access to the justice system. President Biden is confident that the federal government has a critical role to play in ensuring that the work of civil legal aid providers and public defenders is accessible to any American who requires legal counsel for civil or criminal matters.