Fordham Law School. (Photo: Paul Warchol)
We have arrived at a critical moment where our most fundamental legal ideals are threatened by a profound justice gap. Millions of people — evicted tenants, indigent defendants and immigrant mothers — find themselves buffeted by legal processes that do not assure a meaningful right to be heard, much less representation by competent counsel.
Teaching the next generation of lawyers the values, knowledge and skills needed to deliver on the promise of access to justice is paramount. To do this, Fordham University School of Law and other leading law schools are placing the issue of access to justice at the center of legal education.
The frustration evident in the past two years of protests against police conduct and the sense of alienation apparent in this year’s election cycle have a common denominator — disenfranchisement from our public institutions.
This is particularly acute in our legal system — the institution charged with upholding the principle of equal treatment under the law.
Yet, since the 2008 economic crash, a crisis in access to justice has left millions with little means of protecting their rights. The financial crisis flooded state courts with a surge of new eviction, foreclosure, debt collection and family law disputes, while imposing devastating cuts on funding for the legal aid bar and for the courts themselves.
In recent years, state budgets have inched back up slowly, but we cannot afford to be complacent. The strain of the housing market, the impact of lost ­middle-class jobs, and long-standing racial bias continue, on a daily basis, to reverberate through the legal system.
The chair of the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation reported in August that LSC’s $385 million in funding is “near historical lows” despite growing need.
The disparity, he said, is “forcing our grantees to turn away droves of individuals for lack of resources and clogging the nation’s civil courts.”
When people lack effective representation to help with their most pressing problems, our legal system fuels alienation and inequality.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE PROTECTS LIVES
As the U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson makes plain, when the justice system fails those in poverty and facing racial inequality, violence can result.
Given this state of affairs, access to justice doesn’t simply make a difference; it protects lives.
Nor are such challenges limited to the United States. Last year, in recognition of continuing poverty around the globe, the United Nations adopted Sustainable Development Goals.
Goal 16 specifically directs all countries to provide access to justice to their residents. Drawing on the power of the data revolution, and explicitly asserting that access to justice reduces poverty, the sustainable goals require countries to track, publish and compare data as a means of accelerating progress to achieve those goals.
Law schools must confront the legal system’s limitations.
Our profession has a direct stake in ensuring that every ­student appreciates the importance of access to justice to enable every person to secure the rights implicit in the ­promise of equal dignity under law.
TAKING STEPS FORWARD
Thankfully, many law schools are taking critical steps forward.
Georgetown Law Center’s Center on Poverty and Inequality includes national, state and local policy and program recommendations that help marginalized girls, promote effective workforce and education policies and programs for disconnected youth, and develop policy to combat deep poverty.
Stanford Law School’s John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law aids students interested in advancing the public good and achieving social justice through the law.
Harvard Law’s new Access to Justice Lab aims to transform the ways judges, courts and legal services providers employ evidence-based approaches in adjudication and legal practice.
This fall, Fordham Law School begins its Access to Justice Initiative. The effort aims to serve as a national model for legal education in accordance with the law school’s credo, “In the Service of Others.”
Fordham Law aspires to bring the importance of adequate representation to the fore throughout its curriculum, educating students about the justice gap and opportunities for reform. The initiative will focus our direct-service efforts as students and faculty provide legal help in communities direly in need.
Finally, we will bring to bear our research capacity, informing lawyers, policymakers and the public about access to justice. As a capstone to this commitment, the National Center for Access to Justice relocated to Fordham Law in fall 2016 to infuse the initiative with cutting-edge research and analytical techniques.
The center created the data-driven Justice Index, www.justiceindex.org, which ranks, compares and promotes progress in state justice systems to help expand and assure access to justice for all.
OUR HIGHEST GOALS
We by no means minimize that the difficulties facing legal education are many — among them, a challenging job market for new lawyers. But every law student can understand and appreciate the importance of access to justice to every client. As legal education comes to grips with the challenges, prioritizing access to justice aligns with the best and highest goals of the profession.
It also provides meaning to law students. They come to law school to launch careers, whether in private practice or public service, that rely on the law to make a difference in people’s lives.
Other actors in our legal system — from state courts, which are already a site for innovation and reform, to the bar and many other national and local organizations — are already working together to confront deep inequities in our justice system.
In joining in these efforts, and placing access to justice at the center of what they do, law schools can play an important role in crafting solutions, providing service and, most importantly, educating the next generation of lawyers so we can deliver on the promise of equal justice under law.