Why doesn’t it resonate with more Americans that we need a better justice system, that gives equal & universal access to all people who need to use law to deal with their life problems? Why don’t we have huge philanthropic funds, corporate support programs, and a political movement driving for legal aid to all people who need it?
Maybe, as Jim Sandman of the LSC proposed in a talk, it’s because we only understand the legal system from TV shows, which show us only the criminal law system (and through a Hollywood lens), in which there are Constitutional guarantees to get a lawyer.
But what about if you have a problem with your housing, a divorce, custody of your kids, a lawsuit, debt, or domestic violence? We don’t see tv shows or movies about this part of the justice system. And this civil legal aid part of the justice system is desperately underfunded, understaffed, and not made for normal people to navigate with any intuitiveness or ease. It’s a system made by lawyers for lawyers, but not many people who need it can actually afford lawyers. They don’t get access to justice.
There needs to be a second wave of the Access to Justice Movement, version 2.0. We need to rebrand “Legal Aid” because that also doesn’t carry much sway. People (and policymakers) (and philanthropists) tend to read giving funds to legal aid as giving funds to lawyers. And lawyers carry the image of sharks, of wealthy professionals, of people who aren’t necessarily serving the social good.
We need to connect — through data, research, marketing, projects, (add more here…) — legal aid back to the human situations it can help. Issues that people find more meaningful than “legal issues”: stopping people from spiraling into poverty, helping people get out of bad situations that they’re in, giving some way to protect themselves from unjust or abusive treatment.
It’s up to the Access to Justice movement to be more strategic and coordinated going forward. It’s about building partnerships with other social movements and service-providers. And it’s about finding new ways to open channels of money, volunteers, innovation, and technology from corporations (their legal departments but not just their legal departments). It’s about making legal aid relevant to people outside the world of law — going beyond typical pro bono programs in law firms & corporate legal departments to recruit people from other professions to use their skills to build a more engaging legal system. How do we get more engagement from more people on making the legal system actually work for normal people?
I have some ideas brewing on this. A preview: