May 24 2021
On May 18, 2021, President Biden signed a presidential memo expand access to legal advice, legal representation and courts. The executive action of the Biden administration could improve inequalities in the justice system and ensure that more minorities, low-income people and other vulnerable Americans have better access to legal services. Affordable and timely legal assistance can make a big difference in a person’s life.
The presidential note called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to restore the White House Interagency Legal Aid Roundtable (LAIR) and restore some functions of the now closed Access to Justice Office. The roundtable was started as a White House initiative by former President Obama in 2015. Its purpose was to examine evidence-based solutions to ensure that justice is accessible to more Americans. LAIR has also created a partnership between medical and legal partners to reduce healthcare costs, improve health outcomes, and ensure that those who represent themselves in court are aware of legal requirements and procedures. legal processes.
The White House stressed that the first priority of this roundtable is to study the impact of COVID-19 on Americans’ access to justice, both in civil and criminal matters. Biden noted in the note that the pandemic “has further exposed and exacerbated inequalities in our justice system,” as access to legal services has been significantly affected. He went on to say that “… the exacerbated inequalities in our justice system… have affected the lives of many people in this country, especially low-income people and people of color”.
The re-establishment of LAIR is in line with President Biden’s public commitment to reform the criminal justice system while advancing racial equity. Under the proposed budget, $ 1.5 billion is earmarked for grants to strengthen state and local criminal justice systems, including additional support for public defenders. By investing in public defenders, President Biden, himself a former public defender, is optimistic that this investment will ensure that minorities, low-income and vulnerable populations will have access to the legal system, should they require services. legal. Since civil legal aid and public defenders have been understaffed, underfunded, and unable to reach those in need of legal services, these reforms and the supportive grants and budget will help improve the access to a lawyer in criminal and civil matters.
While the memo does not explicitly reopen the access to justice office, Attorney General Merrick Garland is tasked with submitting a plan to expand access to justice for more Americans within 120 days. The office was started in 2010 by then Attorney General Eric Holder. Formally established under President Obama in 2016, the office has focused on enforcing fines, overcoming language barriers in courts and civil legal aid, and assisting those who cannot. not to afford a lawyer on their own.
Shut down by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018, senior DOJ officials said the office’s mission duplicated the role of public defenders. Before the office closed in 2018, office resources were dwindling.
As the DOJ prioritizes police reforms at all levels of law enforcement, this commitment to ensuring that all Americans have access to justice is welcome. The DOJ also focuses on combating racial discrimination and civil rights.
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In 2017, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans report was released by the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit organization that funds civil legal aid for low-income Americans. This report used data from the 2017 Justice Gap Measurement Survey of Low-Income Households. 71% of low-income households have experienced at least one civil legal problem in the past 12 months. These legal issues ranged from disability, income maintenance, education, rental housing, finances, health, children and custody. Unfortunately, only 20% of low-income Americans have sought help from a legal professional. A staggering 86% of low-income Americans have received inadequate or no professional legal assistance.
The announcement of the restoration of LAIR could give more Americans access to the justice system. President Biden believes that the federal government has a vital role to play in ensuring that the work of civil legal aid providers and public defenders is accessible to any American who needs a lawyer in civil or criminal matters.