God commanded His people: “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (Exodus 23:6). But what if the poor can’t even get their day in court? For most of the poor in the U.S. today, justice is denied even before a lawsuit begins because they can’t afford to initiate or defend a lawsuit.
With the average billable rate of small firm lawyers at $300 per hour in metropolitan areas, legal services are far beyond the reach of low-income (and even middle-class) people. Someone making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour needs to work an entire week just to pay for a single hour of lawyer fees!
While we certainly need more legal aid and pro bono attorneys, we will never be able to recruit enough lawyers willing to donate enough time to meet the needs of the millions of poor people who have legal problems. If we are ever going to live up to our Nation’s ideals of equal justice for all, the entire legal system needs to be reformed to be more accessible for those who can’t afford to hire lawyers.
Although lawyers are notorious for fearing change in our profession, a growing chorus of people are calling for innovation in the courts and the legal system. Without substantial reforms and new solutions, the access to justice crisis will continue to get worse.
What kind of “out-of-the-box” things can Christian Legal Aid clinics do to help serve people in need? Well, providing spiritual counseling, prayer, and sharing the love of Christ is certainly non-traditional in the legal world! But we have much more room to be bolder and more creative in finding new solutions for solving legal problems. (For a discussion of legal innovations that CLA clinics ought to be aware of and can consider providing, join us for a webinar on “Legal Innovation for Improving Access to Justice” on June 16, 2021. See webinar details below and other resources on legal reform initiatives.)
Unbundled Legal Services in the New Normal. This virtual conference in April 2021, hosted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), focused on the why and how of supporting and implementing the practice of “unbundled legal services” both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Also known as “limited scope representation,” this practice is an important means of providing more access to justice to low-income clients. Check out free recordings of conference sessions.
Redesigning Legal: Leading from the Bench—Expanding Access through Regulatory Innovation. Also hosted by the IAALS, this online presentation on June 9, 2021, 11am–12pm MDT, will explore how judicial leadership can play a critical role in expanding access to legal services. The panelists will explore the status of regulatory innovation, how courts and others are seeking to address the problems, and why state supreme courts and the organized bar must start forging solutions now.
For additional information on “outside the box” legal thinking, see these other resources:
The Center for Court Innovation – works to create a more fair, effective, and humane justice system
Stanford Law School’s Legal Design Lab – applies design thinking to make the law and legal services more useful, user-friendly, and engaging
Eviction Innovations – provides initiatives to address the eviction crisis
- Open Law Lab – a blog on designing human-centered justice innovation
(CLS does not endorse these organizations, but we provide these solely for informational purposes.)
Director, CLS Law School Fellows
Law Student Ministries Coordinator