A Solution for the Access Crisis in Our Civil Justice System

Seven states are moving forward with major changes to give people the help they need in court.
March 30, 2017
By Mary E. McClymont  |  Contributor
President and CEO of the Public Welfare Foundation

Marie arrived at the Brooklyn Housing Court frightened and confused. Elderly and with impaired mobility, she had lived in her apartment for more than 20 years and had always paid her rent. But a new landlord was suing her, claiming that she had fallen behind. Marie faced a serious challenge: proving to a judge that she had paid her rent on time and doing so without any legal help or experience.

In civil courts across the country, people like Marie face an uphill battle. A recent study by the National Center for State Courts found that in 75 percent of civil cases one or both parties are in court alone, without legal guidance to navigate complicated proceedings. With effective legal assistance, stressful but common life issues such as landlord-tenant problems, foreclosure, debt collection, divorce, domestic abuse or child custody can often be resolved promptly; left to fester, these issues can tear families apart or send them spiraling into economic despair.

The increase in self-represented litigants in our state courts, along with severe funding deficiencies over the years, have created an access crisis in our civil justice system that amounts to a betrayal of one of our country's founding principles: the promise of justice for all. To be sure, there has been progress, with the development of many exciting innovations in recent years. Too often, though, they are offered piecemeal and not in ways that are most helpful to those who face civil legal problems. But in seven pioneering states, that's about to change.

Two years ago, in an unheralded but path-breaking move, the Conference of Chief Justices of the United States and the Conference of State Court Administrators unanimously passed a resolution supporting the goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for people with "essential civil legal needs."

The resolution calls on states to develop systems in which everyone can get legal help through a comprehensive approach that provides a continuum of meaningful and appropriate services. It also calls on core players -- courts, Access to Justice commissions, civil legal aid organizations, the private bar and other essential partners -- to work together across organizational boundaries in their states to find solutions. Now, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York are seizing the opportunity to bring the vision expressed by the resolution closer to reality through what's known as the Justice for All Project.

Housed at the National Center for State Courts, overseen by a distinguished advisory committee and funded by the Public Welfare Foundation with others on deck, the project will assist the seven states with resources to assess their systems' strengths and weaknesses, make coherent action plans that integrate services to close the gaps, and begin making changes. They will harness an array of practical solutions -- such as self-help services, automated court forms, and limited scope representation -- to better match users who have specific needs to the appropriate level of help.

The potential benefits for our communities are substantial. In New York City, for example, the recent addition of "court navigators" -- trained and supervised personnel with no formal legal training -- is helping people like Marie manage their way through the sometimes-daunting Brooklyn Housing Court system. A navigator named Ernesto helped Marie keep her home by assisting her in tracking down the money order she had submitted for her rent and showing her how to have it reissued to the new landlord. Beyond that, the navigator helped her obtain a senior-citizen rent-increase exemption.

The project has unleashed interest nationwide, from states that are red and blue, small and large. In all, 25 states applied for funding, suggesting that there is both widespread awareness of the crisis in our civil justice system and a formidable will to come together to remedy it. Momentum is building, and all of us must commit wholeheartedly to achieving a system of justice that works, not just for the few who can afford it but for everyone.