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You probably have heard the concept “access to justice.” Sometimes it is a concept that is thrown around loosely by politicians, lawyers or even “influencers”. Even to me, a lawyer, the concept of “access to justice” can be puzzling.
Lawyers tend to use legal prose to explain that access to justice is a basic principle of the rule of law or the ability to appear in court. However, access to justice is a broader topic that can’t be encompassed in a narrow definition. On many occasions the idea of what is access to justice has come from a court-centric or a lawyer-centric approach. These narrow definitions make it challenging to translate the idea into practical plans and programs to solve problems surrounding access to justice.
Access to justice is not a mere concept or definition that belongs to lawyers, politicians or judges. Access to justice requires an understanding of a wider social context of the court systems, the systemic barriers to legal services faced by different stakeholders and the high costs associated with legal services. In other words, “access to justice” is a multidisciplinary issue that requires perspectives from more than one discipline. In fact, we need to move away from court-centric or lawyer-centric notions of access to justice.
When you start to collaborate with other industries, you can see how access to justice requires a client-centric approach. That means, the notion of access to justice has to focus on solutions that can be provided to ordinary citizens in their daily lives. Access to justice, similar to the words of Abraham Lincoln, is a notion of the people, by the people and for the people.
Justice begins to be more accessible from the moment we start to shift its focus away from asking how lawyers and courts can provide more services to the public. Access to justice starts by providing an open platform to different stakeholders to share their experiences, frustrations, anger, irritation, happiness or indifference with their legal needs.
From my time at A2J I’ve grasped a better understating of what is access to justice. So, what is access to justice? Rather than giving a narrow or incomplete definition, let me give you different ideas of what I’ve come to learn from entrepreneurs, lawyers, programmers, digital marketers, politicians and students.
Eliminate barriers that prevent people from understanding and exercising their rights. Legal information should not be drafted exclusively in legal jargon. For instance, we should stop using terms like “affiant“, “prima facie”, “ex parte”, “res judicata” and “mens rea”. Legal information should be direct, concise and clear. Laws and legal information should not be drafted with complicated words or phrases. Justice becomes accessible when we use standard language that the ordinary citizen can understand. Legal information is not about scoring an A+ in Latin expressions. Imagine, if there are 26 legal terms every paralegal needs to know, how many are there for an ordinary citizen?
Anyone can exercise their rights and remedies in a court, irrespective of gender, race, wealth or status. In fact, according to the 2019 Global Insights on Access to Justice (Global Insights Report), most common legal problems are related to consumer issues, housing, money and debt. So, the “low-hanging fruit” in legal needs is closer to us than we realize.
Anyone should have the right to an attorney, not only in criminal proceedings. This need is extensive to civil claims and other administrative motions. According to the Global Insights Report, less than a third (29%) of people who experience a legal problem sought any form of advice to help them better understand or resolve their legal problems. A lawyer should not be simply a professional spending long hours behind a shiny wooden desk in an office overflowing with paper and charging $200-$800 per hour. Lawyers must become accessible to ordinary citizens and provide alternative business models. You might ask, how can lawyers become more accessible? Well, one way is to find creative solutions in practice management to reduce unnecessary overhead costs.
Create substantive reforms and changes to the status quo. This means, promoting the use of virtual courts and other alternatives to provide legal solutions. Furthermore, this notion extends to change preconceived notions or biases in the system.
Provide alternatives to solve legal problems, using accessible mechanisms without needing a lawyer or a court. This notion refers to the democratization in law. For instance, on September 2012 the United Nations General Assembly at the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels reaffirmed that "human rights, the rule of law and democracy are interlinked and mutually reinforcing and that they belong to the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations". This could be as easy as providing more alternate disputes mechanisms to solve legal problems. Mediation and negotiation should have more importance in an oversaturated legal system.
The high cost of attending law school disincentivizes students to become lawyers. In fact, many brilliant individuals are pressured to find high-paying jobs to pay down their education debt. Just like Travis Hornsby said, "(…) law school student debt is criminally high.” Some suggest that the average law school graduate has over $122,000 in student debt. Justice can become more accessible if we provide legal education at an accessible price. If we fail to create accessible legal education, open education resources (OER) will become essential in the future endeavors to promote access to justice.
When citizens' legal needs remain unmet, this can have adverse effects on other areas of their everyday life, e.g. income, housing loss, health, or employment issues. Therefore, legal solutions have to be rendered quickly, justly and fairly. So, how do we go about doing this? Well, there is no exact formula. We can start by providing alternatives to the normal court system. For instance, the automation of non-adversarial claims could provide faster legal solutions. On the other hand, the automation of the research process for statutes and case law can provide fair and equitable solutions. This is probably one of the areas that will be prone to disruption and innovation. As long as we take an active role, justice will become more accessible.
Citizens are demanding increased efficiency, lower costs, process optimization and accessible legal services. For instance, Tango Law is a law firm that works remotely saving overhead costs. This gives them the flexibility to offer accessible prices to clients, without sacrificing the quality of their legal work. Efficiency in the legal practice will come with the implementation of legal technologies and the creation of alternate business models. The automation of certain processes and documents will give the lawyer more time to focus on substantive issues. Rather than charging by the hour, lawyers will have to offer better prices and alternatives than the traditional cost per hour.
Legal aid programs are a central component of strategies to enhance access to justice. A recent report by the IBA Access to Justice Committee and the World Bank show that the benefits of legal aid and related services significantly outweigh their costs. Without legal aid the access to justice fissure would only be greater.
Legal technology can be leveraged to improve access to justice. According to the Survey of US Legal Technologies, the most common cases uses of legal tech for access to justice issues are (i) technology that provides legal information; (ii) technology that connects individuals to attorneys (Uber-like platforms); and (iii) technology that automates documents (see Fig. 1). In fact, A2J has a special interest in document automation, which is a vital component in the notions of access to justice.
So, what is access to justice? Honestly, there is no right answer. You can model a concept depending on your interests and real-life experiences. Access to justice is an evolving concept that will never be complete. We can only aspire to contribute and close the access to justice gap.
Justice is a collaborative process that requires engaged participation from different stakeholders. Access to justice does not belong exclusively to lawyers or judges. Programmers, software developers, graphic designers and project managers are essential to provide more and better solutions. Legal design thinking, visual contracts, document automation and accessible websites are just a few of the tools that close the access to justice shortcomings.
In the end, justice starts to become more accessible, once we realize we are all a part of the solution.