Access to Justice Commissions: Learning to Work Collaboratively on Difficult Justice Problems

Two weeks ago, the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters released the Colloquium Report. This document captures the action-oriented strategies, reforms and innovations from leaders in the access to justice field in response to the recommendations made by the Action Committee in their final report, A Roadmap for Change (see a SLAW summary here).

One of the institutional and structural goals discussed in the Colloquium Report was to “Create Local and National Access to Justice Implementation Mechanisms”, such as the recently-formed Access to Justice Co-ordinating Committee in Nova Scotia. The report looked to the Access to Justice Commission (ATJC) movement in the U.S. as a successful example of meeting this goal, with the result being greater collaboration across jurisdictions and sectors to achieve access to justice.

The recent CBA report,Reaching Equal Justice, also evaluates the ATJC model and recommends “ongoing collaborative structures with effective leadership be well-established at the national, provincial, territorial and local levels”. It is clear from both the CBA and the Action Committee that greater collaboration is needed on access to justice issues, and that the ATJC movement is an excellent example of successful collaboration at work.

What Are Access to Justice Commissions?

ATJCs are state-based leadership bodies in the U.S, with the mandate “to expand access to civil justice at all levels for low-income and disadvantaged people in the state by assessing their civil legal needs, developing strategies to meet them, and evaluating progress.” They typically have three primary stakeholders: the court, the organized bar, and legal aid providers.

The idea of state-run ATJCs began over two decades ago, with the launch of the first commission in Washington State in 1994. Thirty-three states currently have ATJCs, the mostrecent additions being Oklahoma and Puerto Rico in 2014. Since 1994, the ATJC movement has learned a great deal about what makes a multi-stakeholder commission successful. The best practices below are taken from the American Bar Association’s “Hallmarks of Effective ATJCs” resource and the recent National Center for State Courts’ “Trends in State Courts 2014” report.

What Makes an Access to Justice Commission Effective?

1. Broad, Multidisciplinary Partnerships

The membership of the ATJCs is not strictly made up of core legal stakeholders. Others with a stake in the civil justice system are often included as commission members or partners. These include law schools, criminal and juvenile defense service providers, and representatives of the provincial legislature. Increasingly, commissions are involving members in the health care, education, social services, business, religious, and non-profit sectors. By meaningfully engaging multiple disciplines, a “big picture” perspective can be maintained in a manner that gives equal weight to various viewpoints.

Learning curve: Law professionals tend to cultivate a protective and thus restrictive boundary around their area of expertise (e.g., multidisciplinary practices are highly regulated and limited in Ontario). Yet the advantages of a multidisciplinary approach are significant and wide reaching. When specialists from various disciplines are put into conversation the walls between professions are diminished giving rise to nuanced understandings of complex issues. Broadening the circulation of ideas, approaches and experiences builds momentum for meaningful change across networks. The first step towards “achieving access to justice in its fullest sense” is equal representation from members outside the core legal community. For example, members of the Wisconsin ATJC Commission include an Aboriginal law attorney, a small business owner, a public interest lawyer, a district court administrator, a Norbertine minister, a Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force, and a court of appeal judge.

2. Strong Institutional Support

Effective ATJCs have strong institutional support from key stakeholders, namely the judiciary, the organized bar, and civil legal aid providers and funders. Each of these three stakeholders brings something different to the table, as shown in “Twelve Lessons from Successful State Access to Justice Efforts” from the Access to Justice Support Project:

“The bar brings its volunteer base and professional structure, including the potential for staffing Access to Justice efforts. Providers bring their direct experience with the civil legal needs of low-income people, their expertise in developing and implementing effective delivery models, and their links to low-income communities. The judiciary brings its unique credibility and rule-making authority, as well as direct experience in responding to the growing number of self-represented litigants.”

Access to Justice Commissions are beneficial in that they bring together these stakeholders and others, such as law schools, for greater collaboration and sharing of assets and information. The commission puts forth focused access to justice improvements by uniting the strengths of separate institutions.

Learning curve: Collaboration is more than bringing stakeholders from different sectors together in the same room. It involves a bottom-up approach to decision-making, and the avoidance of “silo syndrome” where barriers form between an organization’s different parts. The challenge is to move information and decisions vertically, not horizontally, without compromising the ability to make decisions in a timely manner. For example, the Connecticut ATJC, in collaboration with local bar associations, formed various Volunteer Attorney programs in the state family courts that have served almost 640 self-represented litigants a little over a year.

3. Innovation, Leadership and Organizational Visibility

In order for ATJCs to gain the funding and support needed to advance access to justice, they must be credible innovators in their field. Successful ATJCs create goals not based on institutional self-interest or political gains, but rather the pursuit of creative and innovative solutions based on public-participatory and multidisciplinary research. ATJCs should communicate with stakeholders and the public through a variety of mediums to promote mobilization and awareness of access to justice goals.

Learning curve: With so many stakeholders from different sectors in the community, there are bound to be disputes, lack of adequate communication, and failures of cooperation. These can seriously damage access to justice efforts and undermine credibility. It is important that the commission be able to speak with one voice to the public, and maintain a larger perspective on goals and strategies everyone can agree on. For instance, each year, the ABA hosts a national meeting of stakeholders including Chairs of each state-run ATJC. This event serves to promote awareness of common areas of need and mobilization of innovative solutions. In 2014, the meeting included legal aid funding updates, breakout programs on a broad range of topics – including support of self-represented litigants – language-access projects, pro bono projects, innovations in technology and roundtables for new and more mature ATJCs.

Following the recommendations of A Roadmap for Change and the example of Nova Scotia’s recently-formed Access to Justice Co-ordinating Committee, we can expect more commission-like structures and other access to justice initiatives to form at the local and national levels in the coming months and years. In the face of evidence-based research by the Action Committee and the CBA that we are in an access to justice crisis, it is no longer possible to continue to work in our justice silos. We must look for new and innovative ways to work together – and access to justice commissions are part of this solution.

— by Hannah De Jong, CFCJ Communications Assistant
JD Student, Osgoode Hall Law School

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