Why Access to Justice Matters
“Equal Justice Under Law” is a promise in our Constitution that must be kept in our courts.
THE JUSTICE GAP Many Americans go without legal assistance for matters as critical as saving their home, their life savings, or custody over their children.
A Promise We Have to Keep.Justice depends on having a fair chance to be heard, regardless of who you are, where you live, or how much money you have. The National Center for Access to Justice has created the Justice Index to help make access to justice a reality for all. The Justice Index provides a vivid picture of which states are following selected practices and providing necessary resources to make the legal system fairer to everyone. Our justice system is among the most highly regarded in the world and we cherish our ideal of equality before the law. But for too many people the reality falls short of the promise.
- The Cost of Hiring an Attorney: The average family of four earns about $1,300 per week (before taxes). Lawyers routinely charge $250 per hour or more. The cost of even simple matters can quickly become a hardship for middle class families. Nor is there yet a right to counsel in most categories of civil cases. So, many Americans go without legal assistance for matters as critical as saving their home, maintaining custody over their children, and preserving their life savings. The Justice Index highlights approaches states are taking to help people proceed more effectively without counsel and to make lawyers available for little or no cost.
- Getting In and Getting Heard: For those who communicate in sign language or who have limited ability to speak English, access to the courts requires assistance that is often not available. Even in the courtroom itself, interpreters can be hard to find or of poor quality. Some states even charge deaf Americans for sign language interpreters. Outside the courtroom, language assistance is scarcer still. But the Justice Index shows that many states have innovative programs that can be models of how to make sure that disability or language issues don’t allow anyone to be denied his or her day in court.
- The Bigger Picture: The first installment of the Justice Index does not attempt to paint a picture of every facet of the legal system. As the Justice Index grows, it will address more elements of civil and criminal justice systems and give a more complete picture. In criminal cases, it may show whether states are delivering competent defense services by providing sufficient resources, limiting attorneys’ case-loads, and supporting supervisory structures. In civil matters, it may examine whether states have adopted provisions to provide a civil right to counsel in critical areas of the law. The Justice Index may also highlight whether courts themselves are receiving the resources they need to meet the requirements of fairness and whether they have adopted the best ideas for using their resources wisely.
GETTING HEARD Many states have innovative programs that help ensure that disability or language issues don’t inhibit peoples’ access to the courts.
The Justice Index: Facts and a ConversationThe Justice Index was created by NCAJ with the pro bono help of Pfizer, Skadden Arps, other law firms in the Pfizer Legal Alliance, UBS, students at Cardozo School of Law and University of Pennsylvania Law School, Deloitte, and MSDS. The NCAJ is grateful to all of these participants, without whose help the Justice Index would not exist.
While the full future scope of the Justice Index is under continuous development, the Justice Index currently reports on four elements of state-based justice systems:
- Attorney Access: the number of civil legal aid attorneys serving the poor;
- Self-Representation: systems available to assist self represented litigants;
- Language Assistance: systems available to assist people with limited English proficiency; and,
- Disability Assistance: systems available to assist people with disabilities.
Two important points for all who rely on the Justice Index:I. The Justice Index is selective, not comprehensive. The Justice Index measures selected elements of state justice systems and highlights statewide laws, rules, and policies, as contrasted with local, informal practices. While informal practices may be in place and effective on a regional basis, or may be developed across the state through local rules, the Justice Index focuses on statewide rules because they apply to everyone. It is also more difficult to collect data on a local level, although NCAJ is developing strategies for doing so. Because the Justice Index is selective, rather than comprehensive, it should always be thought of as the beginning, not the end, of an ongoing conversation about best practices and about which states are providing access to justice. If a state does not score well (or scores more poorly than experience suggests it should), NCAJ invites communication as to why. Please email NCAJ at firstname.lastname@example.org. II. The Justice Index is being developed as an ongoing and evolving tool. NCAJ welcomes communication as it works to expand the Justice Index, refine its analysis, and develop strategies to guide research. Over time, the Justice Index will become a more powerful tool. By prompting conversation on how best to measure access to justice and providing concrete feedback to participants as to what various measures show, the Justice Index can help to build a “common language” to use to identify systemic problems and to describe best practices. It can become the basis for advocacy that accomplishes lasting reform.
FOR PEOPLE WITHOUT LAWYERS Increasingly, states are taking steps to make court proceedings fairer for people who do not have legal representation.Learn More
The Power of the Justice IndexWhether you are examining the overall performance of your own state as compared to its neighbor, or analyzing why your state hasn’t yet adopted best practices long ago embraced by others, the data in the Justice Index as visualized through its new technologies offer insights unavailable anywhere else. Our state justice systems are working hard to deliver justice, often under difficult financial circumstances. The Justice Index can help. You, or your organization, can use the Justice Index to help push for better and more effective state justice systems. Of course, it’s not just about the findings. It’s also about the conversations that ensue. As NCAJ and its partners plan a second and subsequent installments of the Justice Index, we seek your input via email to email@example.com. What new subjects should be researched? What methodological refinements are critical? What data exists that can be incorporated into the Justice Index to make it more effective in revealing opportunities to increase access to justice? What do you see as important in the Justice Index? Access to justice is important to every one of us. It is part of a duty we all owe to each other as members of our communities, our states, and our Nation. The Justice Index helps us understand whether we are making good on our common obligation to ensure that the law is fair.
To Learn MoreFor more information about the Justice Index and NCAJ’s related initiatives to increase access to justice, please:
- examine the data visualizations in the Justice Index,
- review the Justice Index methodology,
- see articles about the Justice Index that we and others have authored,
- join NCAJ’s blog,
- and visit NCAJ’s web site, www.ncforaj.org.