Justice for all improves lives and sustains our democracy. While some people know that civil legal aid serves those same ends, too few realize how civil legal aid also makes government more effective, efficient, and fair. The Justice in Government Project (JGP) works to turn that secret into common knowledge.
At The JGP, we help state and local officials leverage civil legal aid to accomplish their policy and program goals, enabling people and communities to access housing, health care, safety, jobs, and many other basic necessities.
How The Justice In Government Project Works
The big idea behind The Justice in Government Project is to embed civil legal aid into existing priorities, programs, and appropriations to ensure maximum benefit from dollars spent on low-and moderate-income people and communities. State and local government programs help people remove obstacles to employment, stabilize housing for needy families, escape domestic violence, halt elder abuse, respond to disasters, secure appropriate benefits, and more. Too often those programs do not include legal aid, but could achieve even better results if they did.
We aim to fix that by partnering with leaders in four pilot states: Arizona, California, Mississippi, and Wisconsin. Together, we'll test new models to support legal aid, and then share our findings in a toolkit and via webinars. Policymakers at all levels of government can learn from these experiences.
Some ways that civil legal aid furthers government priorities:
- Legal aid is an essential partner in
ending Veteran homelessness.
- Legal aid works with your state to address
unmet legal needs.
- Legal aid helps states reduce unemployment and
keep Americans working.
- Legal aid can improve peoples' health and help states
reduce health care costs.
- Legal aid enables states to protect constituents from consumer fraud scams.
How We Started
The Justice in Government Project is modeled on the successful federal executive branch effort known as the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR). The JGP Director Karen Lash was the principal architect and first LAIR executive director. Alongside her colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Access to Justice, Karen collaborated with 22 federal agencies to maximize program effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness.
As government officials discovered the hidden, additive power of legal aid to advance a wide range of federal goals and enhance program effectiveness, agencies began inviting legal aid providers to join these efforts as partners, grantees, and sub-grantees.
The JGP replicates LAIR at the state level.
Check out the First Annual LAIR Report.
Civil Legal Aid Supports Government Program Success and Savings
Studies show that most people consider problems such as unsafe housing conditions, harassment from debt collectors, or an abusive spouse, to be personal problems or bad luck, little guessing there might be a legal solution. Leaving those legal tools on the shelf makes government officials and social service programs less effective, scarce taxpayer dollars do not stretch as far as they should, and the people and communities suffering get less relief.
Government officials struggle under the twin pressures of spending limited funds as wisely as possible, while at the same time obtaining the best results for the maximum number of people. That's why legal aid programs are valued government partners. Many studies demonstrate how legal aid can provide real and lasting economic benefits, both for the people who receive assistance, and for government budgets, by reducing and preventing costly harms, such as those that flow from domestic violence, extended stays in foster care, illegal eviction, and health emergencies.
The Justice in Government Project Leverages Existing Resources
The Justice in Government Project taps a variety of resources, including state funds already designated for low- and moderate-income people, federal block or formula grants that explicitly authorize states to use funds for civil legal aid, and public-private partnerships.
For example, after documenting the significant unmet legal needs of crime victims, the U.S. Department of Justice clarified that Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Victim Assistance Formula Grant funds can include legal aid for victims of a wide range of crimes, such as domestic violence, elder abuse, human trafficking, identity theft, and financial fraud. Other federal block grants can provide legal help to homeless veterans, elderly people, foster children and their families, parents with child support-related needs, and other underserved populations. The JGP works with state and local policymakers to identify resources that achieve their collective priorities and enable their constituents to access legal help.
Legal aid is an essential partner in ending Veteran homelessness.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, five of the top ten unmet needs of homeless veterans involve legal assistance for eviction/foreclosure prevention, child support issues, outstanding warrants/fines, discharge upgrades, and restoring a driver's license. Other top ten unmet needs can have a legal component, including family reconciliation assistance and credit counseling.
Check out DOJ's 2016 LAIR report to see how a legal aid lawyer helped a veteran negotiate an agreement to avoid eviction and receive the medical assistance he needed.
Legal aid works with your state to address crime victims' unmet legal needs.
Not all states ensure legal help for crime victims, despite the documented unmet needs. According to the U.S. Department of
Justice's groundbreaking study,
Vision 21 Transforming Victim Services Final Report, victims of crime, such as identity theft, consumer fraud, domestic violence, elder abuse, and human trafficking, too often struggle alone with complex legal issues. The Vision 21 Report notes that a single case of victimization "…may produce myriad legal issues for the victim, including orders of protection, victims' rights enforcement, compensation, employment, housing, home foreclosure, spousal support, and child custody, visitation, and dependency."
Legal aid helps states reduce unemployment and keep Americans working.
Local workforce development boards know well the hurdles many people face in getting or keeping a job. Chances for steady employment improve with legal assistance to prevent illegal evictions or foreclosures, resolve credit report problems, untangle consumer scams, obtain child support and custody orders, or secure domestic violence restraining orders. People with criminal records may face these problems, as well as additional barriers to employment. Studies show that the chances of getting and keeping a job increase with legal help to expunge or seal old records, reinstate a suspended driver's license, and secure certificates of rehabilitation.
Check out the DOL's website to see how Legal Action of Wisconsin helped Francesca clear her record, get a job, and dream of a better life for her and her children.
Also check out the April 11, 2018 Council of State Government Clean Slate Clearinghouse webinar entitled "Reducing Barriers to Employment—Building Partnerships with Civil Legal Aid," which includes a presentation by JGP Director Karen Lash.
A U.S. Department of Health & Human Services funded medical-legal partnership study concludes: "…civil legal aid services can positively impact individual and population health," including "significant reduction in stress and improvement in health and wellbeing after receiving [legal] services" such as for housing, public and disability benefits, employment, and debt collection problems. Researchers also found integrating legal services into the healthcare setting "drives down healthcare costs."
Legal aid enables states to protect constituents from consumer fraud scams.
Millions of children and adults become consumer fraud victims every year, leading to financial hardship, and even homelessness or bankruptcy. Legal aid helps combat fraud through public education, helping consumers assert their rights when lenders and debt collectors don't follow the law, and correct the harms caused by scammers.
Check out the FTC's website to see how Community Legal Services in Philadelphia helped 84-year old Ms. Dorothy Council with a credit card payment scam.
Referrals Aren't Enough
Identifying new resources for legal aid is critical since we don't come close to meeting the needs of low- or moderate-income people, the elderly, those with disabilities, or others who can't afford legal help. Unlike criminal cases, where there is typically a constitutional right to counsel, there is no right to a lawyer in most civil cases, even when a home, job, custody of a child, or healthcare are in jeopardy.
Thank you to the Open Society Foundations and Public Welfare Foundation for supporting The Justice in Government Project.
Thanks also to key partners including the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, and the California, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi Access to Justice Commissions.
The Justice in Government Project is a component of the Justice Programs Office at American University. For more information, please contact Karen Lash at firstname.lastname@example.org and Loralys McDaniel at email@example.com.