DOJ Office for Access to Justice (2010-2018)
Starting in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice (ATJ) served as the primary office in the Executive Branch focused on legal services for low-income and vulnerable individuals. DOJ’s ATJ inititiative promoted civil legal aid and public defense. This DOJ initiative worked to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status. ATJ’s staff worked within the Department of Justice, across federal agencies, and with state, local, and tribal justice system stakeholders to increase access to counsel and legal assistance, and to improve the justice delivery systems that serve people who are unable to afford lawyers.
During the first year of the Trump Administration, the initiative on Access to Justice (ATJ) at the Department of Justice continued, but its role was limited within the Department. The office was closed in April 2018. Under Attorney General Sessions, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy (OLP) assumed the principal policy and legislative responsibilities of ATJ, including staffing the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) (see below).
ATJ organized a White House “Champions of Change” event in 2011 to honor and recognize the work of 16 leaders who dedicated their professional lives to closing the justice gap in America. In addition, working with the White House and the Office of the Vice President, ATJ helped launch the Access to Justice for Victims of Domestic Violence Project, an effort to create a pool of lawyers with expertise in providing comprehensive legal representation to domestic violence victims.
Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR)
LAIR includes 22 federal members. It works to raise awareness about the profound impact legal aid programs can have in advancing federal efforts to promote access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability and community well-being. The goal is to maximize federal program effectiveness by integrating legal aid providers as partners, grantees or sub-grantees in federal safety-net programs when doing so can improve outcomes.
One of the most effective ongoing initiatives involves the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) that was conceived of and staffed by ATJ. The LAIR, which includes 22 participating federal agencies, works to raise awareness about the profound impact legal aid programs can have in advancing federal efforts to promote access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability, and community well-being. The goal is to maximize federal program effectiveness by integrating legal aid providers as partners,grantees, or sub-grantees in federal safety-net programs when doing so can improve outcomes. Since 2012, LAIR has worked to inspire collaborations that increase access to justice and improve outcomes for vulnerable and underserved people.
On September 24, 2015, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum formally establishing the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable and explicitly expanding its mission to “advance relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis of civil legal aid and indigent defense, and promulgate best practices.” Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power announced the Presidential Memorandum on the eve of the adoption of the United Nations’ historic 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Memorandum expands the number of participating agencies, urges these agencies to accelerate and deepen their commitment to legal aid, and directs them to assist the United States in the implementation of Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda.
In November 2016, The Department of Justice issued to President Obama the first annual report of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (WH-LAIR), Expanding Access to Justice, Strengthening Federal Programs.
Enhancing state access to justice commissions
In addition to LAIR and the development of a civil research agenda, ATJ led an effort to expand and raise the visibility of Access to Justice Commissions around the country. ATJ collaborated with the Office of Child Support at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to disseminate and support best practices with respect to access to legal services and self-help assistance for low-income individuals in child support proceedings.
Civil legal aid esearch agenda
ATJ promoted research on the Delivery of Civil Legal Aid by collaborating with the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession, and the American Bar Foundation—in an effort to develop a broad research agenda and plan for a sustainable infrastructure to support the research.
On May 20-21, 2015, the ATJ and National Institute of Justice, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, hosted a Civil Legal Aid Research Workshop. The workshop — a first of its kind — was designed to help create a civil legal aid research agenda and identify federal priorities on civil legal aid for the conveners and the WH-LAIR.
NLADA’s Civil Legal Aid Initiative
Since 2012, LAIR has worked to inspire collaborations that increase access to justice and improve outcomes for vulnerable and underserved people. NLADA’s Civil Legal Aid Initiative, with support from the Public Welfare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, has undertaken work to complement the federal activity coming out of LAIR. The Initiative seeks to demonstrate to federal agencies how civil legal aid can help meet program goals and improve delivery of services in areas such as health care, housing, and veterans’ affairs.