This week’s posting focuses on Georgia State’s new Center for Access to Justice, which was founded in 2016 to support those working to ensure meaningful access to the courts and equal treatment in the civil and criminal justice systems, with a regional focus on the South.”  This development is an exciting one; Georgia State is taking concrete action to understand and start to address our country’s access to justice issues.

The Center’s draft third newsletter, of which I received a preview copy, explains the need for such a center much better than I possibly could. Director and Associate Professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Assistant Director Dracy Meals start with Justice Black’s famous quote on access to justice: “[there] can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” (Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 19 (1956)). They then detail the need for the Center:

. . . 60 years later, 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, and only those who are actually incarcerated are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel. Many people facing misdemeanor charges can, if convicted, face significant fines and fees, the loss of benefits (including housing), or deportation. But they have no right to an attorney, and those who cannot afford a lawyer go without one.

In the civil justice context, there is no federal constitutional right to counsel despite the fact that civil cases can involve a range of critical issues, including housing, public benefits, child custody and domestic violence. Though certain jurisdictions provide a right to counsel under limited circumstances, in most of these cases, people who cannot afford a lawyer will have no choice but to go to court alone. Representing themselves through the complex legal process may mean that their claim is dismissed for a technical reason, or that they lose a meritorious case.

Much of the public, and often the litigants themselves, incorrectly believe that indigent people are not only legally entitled to a lawyer in any kind of case, but that getting one at no cost is simply a matter of making the request.

The Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University College of Law is working to change that misconception, demonstrating through research how lower-income individuals have a fundamentally different experience with the civil and criminal justice systems, particularly in the South.

The Center has already hosted a conference, entitled State of the South, focusing on the intersection of access to justice in the context of overlapping civil and criminal matters, developed mechanisms and programs to support students interested in public interest or pro bono work, and taken on some significant research projects, including:

  • Conducting a pilot study of individuals’ interactions with dispossessory courts, which handle eviction proceedings (funded by a grant),
  • Commissioning an interactive Access to Justice Map of Georgia, and
  • Studying the civil legal needs of indigent criminal defendants (also funded by a grant).

The fact that the Center was able to secure grant funding for these projects makes the Center’s launch even more exciting.  U.S. law schools have done a poor job, by and large, in applying for and securing grant funding; Georgia State’s successes show there are opportunities we are missing.

More generally, at least in my opinion, the more law schools become part of the solution for access to justice issues (beyond our legal clinics and externships), the better.