Institutional Design for Access to Justice
UC Irvine Law Review, 2021, forthcoming
33 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2021
Date Written: January 26, 2021
Decades of empirical research have confirmed the prevalence of troublesome situations involving civil legal issues in everyday life. Although these problems can be associated with serious financial and social harm, they rarely involve recourse to lawyers or formal legal institutions. Contemporary scholars and practitioners increasingly integrate this reality into the definition of access to justice. They understand access to justice to be concerned with equality in the ability of individuals to achieve just resolutions to the problems they experience, regardless of whether they pursue formal legal action. To achieve this goal, an emerging international set of best practices calls for access to justice interventions that are proactively targeted to those groups most in need of assistance, linked to other social service providers, aimed at addressing problems early to avoid escalation, and customized to the user’s capabilities. In stark opposition to such an outward-facing, multi-faceted approach, the civil justice system is structured to respond only to formal legal claims. We have few auxiliary institutions that provide alternative avenues to resolution, and several barriers that inhibit their ability to address civil legal problems. As a result, access to justice, as contemporarily understood, is largely an orphan issue—a social problem for which no institution bears responsibility. In this Article, I propose an agenda of institutional reforms to better align key social institutions with a contemporary, evidence-based understanding of access to justice. These institutional reforms would enhance individuals’ ability to access justice, within or without the courthouse walls.
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