Notes from the International Forum on Access to Justice

A great reminder that we’re not alone in the issues we face, and that smart people are working on clever responses to sticky problems to get help to people for their everyday legal problems.
Lynne Haultain
Monday, November 6, 2023

VLF co-hosted the International Access to Justice Forum in LA a few weeks ago, in partnership with our friends from the University of California Irvine. The online Forum went exceptionally well last year but there is nothing like being in person to fire conversations and really accelerate new thinking!

Jessica Bednarz, Elizabeth Chambliss, Fiona McLeay and David Udell

Topics ranged from regulatory reform to rural access to justice, building the evidence base with data, to transformative justice. It has long been the case that access to justice issues are highly consistent around the world. There are some local differences in regulation, geography and demography, but the core elements remain the same: civil justice problems are grossly underestimated, cause real disruption in people's lives, and the systems and processes that pertain to them are built by and for the institutions, not for the people who use them. Not only are these conditions true in all jurisdictions, they remain stubborn everywhere too.

The Forum presented many examples of both deep frustration and great innovation in the effort to retool justice for the people it is supposed to serve – all of which offer lessons relevant to our experience.

Lynne Haultain at the International Access to Justice Forum

I moderated a session on rural access to justice which raised some fascinating insights into the myths and realities of legal practice in regional and rural environments – from Atticus Finch sentimentalism to the challenges of making a living as a lawyer in a small tight knit community.

One presentation from Alaskan Nikole Nelson was revelatory. For many towns in Alaska there is no road access – the only way in is by air, boat or snow machine. The state is massive and the population very sparsely distributed, there are over 220 Tribal Nations, and a very limited legal workforce. With all these factors, getting help to people for their everyday legal problems requires real innovation.

The Community Justice Worker (CJW) program was established by the Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) in 2019 to provide legal advice and support through non-lawyer advocates. It’s a version of what we would call a health justice partnership – involving the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Alaska Pacific University. And it’s this last part which is critical. The workers are people who are already trusted in their communities and working as health aids, so they arrive at the program with an awareness of systems and networks. They then participate in extensive online training on common but concerning issues like debt collection, domestic violence, and advocating for Native Alaskan children. They go on to support and represent clients in culturally appropriate ways with their legal matters, under the supervision of the ALSC. One of the key factors for these developments in Alaska is the support of the Alaskan Supreme Court, which has to approve a waiver so the CJWs don’t fall foul of Unauthorised Practice of Law provisions. This keeps legal knowledge in the US behind a velvet rope of admitted practice, with a predictably chilling effect on innovative responses to legal need.

The parallels and opportunities in working with and through health services are well understood here and in remote communities, but what can we do to build legal skills and advocacy in those settings? Could we scale up like Alaska? The ALSC has clearly determined that getting beyond pilot or localised programs is critical to have any hope of making any lasting impact on access to justice.

Contrast Alaska with Washington State in north west USA where a scheme to introduce legal support workers started and stalled. Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs) were trained with the support of the state Bar Association and permitted to work with clients particularly in family law matters. There were calls in April 2020 to expand the areas of LLLT practice to cover eviction and debt, which had reached new peaks around the pandemic.The response from the State of Washington Supreme Court was swift and decisive: the LLLT program would not be expanded, in fact the whole enterprise would be discontinued.Qualified LLLTs could continue to practice, but no new licences would be issued. So this effort to augment legal support services has not progressed.

No doubt there are many and varied reasons why these two programs have had different outcomes – not least the commitment of the Supreme Court in Alaska to the CJW Program - but there are a few things we can take from them. We know that dealing with what’s described in many quarters as the justice gap and in others as a crisis demands lateral thinking. Health is a useful comparator model, and we have a number of impressive health justice partnerships where there has been great collaboration. But can we expand legal advice giving and even representation with appropriate training and support in certain Australian contexts?

Hugh M. McDonald, Lynne Haultain and Nigel Balmer from VLF with UCI's Emily Taylor Poppe

Forums and conferences are validating. We come out of our bunkers for a bit and we’re reminded that we’re not alone in the issues we face – they are alarmingly universal. But we also learn that there are other smart people working on clever responses to sticky problems and we can share experiences and spark new ideas.

We also recognise at these gatherings that, to crib Martin Luther King, the arc of history may bend towards access to justice, but it’s a long and bumpy road. So together with savvy navigation of political, financial and social realities and strong partnerships, persistence is key. The evidence from the forum is clear: the deep commitment from people all over the world is matched by our own, and we know how to hang in for the long haul. We need to be ready to push forward when there’s a crack in the door and learning from each other is critical preparation.

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