August 22, 2014

Struggling to Create an Inclusive Justice System

civil legal aid, Public Welfare Foundation, unaccompanied migrants, Voices for Civil Justice

by Jeremy Leaming

In a class society burdened by festering economic inequality and too many lawmakers bent on cutting funding for civil legal aid, the struggle for an accessible justice system can appear insurmountable.

But some new research emerging from Voices for Civil Justice and the Public Welfare Foundation, indicates that a growing number in the legal profession do care about a justice system that is inclusive -- not one that caters solely to the well-off.

The groups commissioned polling work by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group, and among the information they are making public now shows that a “strong majority of lawyers – 59 percent – indicate a previous or current involvement with civil legal aid as donors or volunteers.”

The research, which will be released in its entirety in September, also reveals that 65 percent of lawyers “express initial support for increasing government funding for civil legal aid.”

Beyond the debilitating effects of the Great Recession, a rapidly growing number of unaccompanied children arriving, many along the U.S.-Mexico border, are facing deportation with no legal representation – or very little. As Voices for Civil Justice and Public Welfare Foundation note there are groups within the legal community that see the injustice of the situation and are striving to do something about it.

Reporting on the uptick of unaccompanied migrants, Rick Jervis of USA Today notes that the Obama administration is urging Congress to authorize “$3.7 billion in emergency funding, which includes $45 million for new judges plus funding for legal aid for children ….” Jervis continues, however, that conservative lawmakers “have balked at the proposal. They want to make it easier to send the youths back.”

But Jonathan Ryan, head of the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, highlights the injustice of denying legal aid to unaccompanied children.

“What really determines the outcome of these cases is whether or not these children have access to competent, affordable civil legal aid, not their actual eligibility,” Ryan said.

In piece for ACSblog, Sarah Bornstein, senior attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., wrote, “Access to counsel is a crucial issue for unaccompanied children,” urging attorneys to take on cases “pro bono or volunteer with a local agency to assist with the screening of children who are still in custody.”

Lauren Sudeall Lucas, an assistant professor at Georgia State University College of Law, in a recent ACS Issue Brief examines other avenues lawyers can explore for expanding access to justice.

For those committed to a more just society, one where classes are diminished, the work of these legal groups and lawyers provides some uplift in an otherwise dreary era.