These papers were commissioned by the Doing What Works project to explore the persistent gap between the legal needs of low-income people and capacity of the civil legal assistance system to meet those needs. Studies indicate that less than 20 percent of poor Americans’ legal needs are being met, requiring unrepresented litigants to navigate complex and often unfriendly court systems. There’s also severe inequality among states in legal aid funding. Our country’s “pro se crisis” comes at a time when the need for civil legal assistance—to help people facing foreclosures, evictions, wrongful terminations, child custody, and other challenges—has never been higher.
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Never before have more low-income Americans needed civil legal aid. About 57 million Americans, one-third of them children, qualify for free legal help when a foreclosure notice comes, a divorce looms, or debts mount after a job loss. But half or more who seek help are turned away because legal aid providers lack sufficient resources. Tens of millions more moderate-income Americans are ineligible for free legal aid, yet lack reliable access to an affordable lawyer.
Still, recent developments give us hope for improvement. State and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and law schools around the country are developing innovative approaches to addressing legal needs in their communities. The Obama administration can hasten these developments by promoting legal service delivery models that are backed by rigorous evidence of their effectiveness.
So-called “evidence-based” practices are taking hold across a wide range of fields. Research methods like randomized controlled trials, statistical mapping and analysis, and systematic qualitative studies allow providers and funders to determine which models deliver on their promised outcomes. By encouraging evidence-based approaches in civil legal assistance, the federal government can help service providers target resources more efficiently. Data on effectiveness will also bolster the case for new investments by Congress and other funders to increase access to justice.
With new leadership and initiative in key institutions, we recommend that the White House and Congress seize the opportunity to:
- Establish a “National Access to Justice Institute” in the Justice Department to coordinate legal aid research through a partnership with the American Bar Foundation and the Legal Services Corporation.
- Support state and regional centers for legal aid research to catalyze innovation and evaluation through collaboration between the new institute, state access-to-justice commissions, legal services providers, and law school clinics.
- Target federal funds to incentivize evidence-based legal aid delivery systems through competitive grants and market-based mechanisms.
By pursuing these steps, we can improve the legal services delivery system for millions of low- and moderate-income Americans, and enhance the likelihood of continued and strengthened public and private support.
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Jeffrey Selbin is a Visiting Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School and a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; Josh Rosenthal is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School; and Jeanne Charn is a Senior Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School.
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