“Stop asking what the answer is, be the answer.” Toussaint Romain, former Assistant Public Defender of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Defender’s Office, challenged all attendees with this statement at the end of the third annual Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s The Future Is Now conference on May 2, 2018.
The Access to Justice Gap Answer
The legal profession needs to act and be the answer to the access to justice gap. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) defines the access to justice gap as the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and resources available to meet those needs. In its The Justice Gap Report 2017, the LSC noted that 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help.
John Levi, Chairman of the LSC Board, told The Future is Now conference attendees that they cannot settle for these numbers as the answer. Levi reminded the conference crowd of almost 400 that access to justice is promised to all Americans starting with the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
Answers Are Available
So, how can the legal profession close this 86% access to justice gap? How can it be done after hearing Levi report that the LSC budget is smaller than what Americans spend on Halloween costumes for their pets? Luckily for the conference attendees, Levi and Paladin Co-Founder and COO, Kristen Sonday provided some answers.
Levi reported that current answers to the justice gap include bipartisan forums on improving access to justice, technology, and pro bono. Both Republicans and Democrats support equal access to justice. In a divisive world, equal access to justice is something most people support. Through its Technology Initiative Grants (TIG), LSC ensures that all fifty states have a website that includes legal information for people to easily access and understand. In Illinois, the website is Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO). LSC is also partnering with Microsoft on a pilot program to simplify access to legal support. According to Levi, if pro bono lawyers are adequately resourced and supported through things like LSC’s Pro Bono Innovation grants, pro bono efforts can assist in narrowing the access to justice gap.
Technology and Pro Bono as Answers
In her presentation, Sonday continued to emphasize technology and pro bono as part of the answer to closing the access to justice gap. Sonday highlighted that even though more legal technology is being built than ever before, the access to justice gap in America keeps widening. The main reasons she sees for this are a lack of diverse representation from diverse communities within legal tech and a lack of focus by the legal tech community on problems that affect access to justice. The subsequent impact of this is design bias and not reaching the right audiences.
However, answers are available and being tested. Sonday highlighted the work of LSC TIG grantees, nonprofits, fellowships, and school programs as well as her own company, Paladin which uses technology to make pro bono more streamlined.
The Answer is Action
The Future Is Now conference talks and town hall discussions are over. It is now time to act. Per, ABA Model Rule 6.1, every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.
What should you do to assist in closing the access to justice gap? Do something that speaks to and inspires you. Be the answer. Look more into getting involved in the ideas Levi and Sonday discussed at the conference.
If those ideas don’t spark your interest, there are plenty of other opportunities. There are three legal services organizations in Illinois that can use pro bono assistance: LAF, Prairie State Legal Services, and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. Check out a list of current volunteer opportunities throughout Illinois on ILAO’s website. If making a donation is an option, there are resources that direct you to make an informed decision about where to donate. The Chicago Bar Foundation, Illinois Bar Foundation, and PILI are also excellent pro bono resources. Keep in mind that this is only a small sampling of organizations dedicated to closing the access to justice gap in Illinois.
Even with all the above suggestions, if you still feel you don’t have an answer, create one. Make it happen. The only wrong answer is to do nothing.