Reconceptualizing Access to Justice
47 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2020
Date Written: March 15, 2019
This Article argues that the assumptions that underlie how we currently conceptualize equal access to justice ensure that we will never achieve it. Much scholarly attention has been paid to the problem of access to justice for lowincome people, which is typically defined as unmet legal need. Most of this attention focuses on the crisis in civil courts of unrepresented parties. These scholars suggest court-focused solutions centered on providing more lawyers and legal advice to help deal with this pro se crisis. But the vast majority of justiciable civil problems are resolved (or not) without any contact with the legal system or the use of lawyers. In the current access to justice framework, lawyers are solely providers of legal advice, guiding people through the legal system but with no role in ameliorating the underlying issue that caused the legal crisis in the first place. By conflating access to justice with access to the courts, current approaches both limit the reach of the lawyer’s interventions and entirely miss the vast majority of people struggling with civil justice problems.
This Article therefore argues that the current conception of access to justice must be redefined because it is missing a crucial component: an examination of the limitations of our current legal services model. Lawyers must reimagine their role in achieving equal access to justice by considering and applying the lessons learned from poverty law and public interest scholars on how attorneys can achieve justice for the poor. Poverty law scholars have long advocated for the use of a wide range of lawyering skills in the broader fight against poverty and injustice, but this scholarly debate is entirely absent from our consideration of how to solve the problem of access to justice for low-income people. Applying lessons from poverty law reveals that lawyers must think creatively about their own ability to effectively intervene to solve civil justice problems beyond the confines of the courthouse.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation