One of the most effective ways to develop, expand, and institutionalize comprehensive, integrated state systems for the delivery of civil legal aid is through the establishment of state access to justice commissions.
Access to justice commissions have existed for a decade or more, including the Washington State Access to Justice Board, the California Access to Justice Commission, and Maine’s Justice Action Group. As of [2018?], 40 states have active access to justice commissions. New commissions are on the drawing boards in more states.
They are conceived as having a continuing existence, in contrast to a blue-ribbon body created to issue a report and then sunset. They have a broad charge to engage in ongoing assessment of the civil legal needs of people in the state and to develop, coordinate, and oversee initiatives to respond to those needs.
Access to Justice Commissions carry out a number of activities:
- Funding for civil legal aid: Increasing state legislative funding (appropriations and legislatively enacted filing fees add-ons), funding from changes in court rules/statutes (e.g., pro hac vice fees and cy pres distributions) and private funding from foundations, the bar and the general public. Many states run public relations and public outreach campaigns as part of fund raising initiatives.
- Developmental Activities: Undertaking state legal needs and economic impact studies, convening public forums across a state, developing strategic plans for access to justice and holding access to justice seminars and conferences on general and specific topics (e.g. law schools, technology).
- Self-represented litigation: simplification of court processes and forms; developing court-based self-help centers; producing educational programs, handbooks and materials; changes in the Code of Judicial Conduct; increasing language access; and cultivating partnerships with public libraries as points of access to legal assistance. Best practices for administrative agencies, strategic plans and recommendations have also been developed to guide future endeavors.
- Pro bono initiatives: implementation of Supreme Court recognition programs, mentorship and training programs, retiring and retired lawyer programs, specialized pro bono programs, regional committees, and rule and policy changes to support pro bono work.
- Limited scope representation: formulating or amending rules of professional conduct or rules of procedure, and developing and providing educational resources.
- Legal aid delivery initiatives: expanded uses of information technology, remote video conferencing, triage approaches, portal projects, legal incubator programs, disability access initiatives, addressing racial disparities, mediation and ADR initiatives, legal answers websites, court based vacillators/navigators and limited licenses for non-lawyers and legal technicians.
- Law school and legal profession efforts: new law school initiatives, pro bono admission requirements for graduation, implicit bias training, poverty simulations, and proposals to add questions about access and poverty law to bar exams.
The ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives produced a report released in August 2018, entitled Access to Justice Commissions: Increasing Effectiveness Through Adequate Staffing and Funding by Mary Flynn. The report is a comprehensive review of the 40 Access to Justice Commissions, their funding, creation, structure, activities and staffing. The report finds that:
- broad, active stakeholder involvement increasers the impact of access to justice commissions;
- professional staff plays a key role with effective commissions; the Conferences of Chief Justices and individual justices have played a key role in expanding access to justice commissions;
- the support of the legal aid community is extremely valuable for successful commissions; and
- private philanthropy has strategically nurtured the expansion of commissions.
It also includes best practices recommendations including seeking out a diverse set of funding sources and have a minimum staffing level.
The ABA Resource Center also produced Access to Justice Commission Initiatives: Examples and Resources (17-page PDF) in August 2017.