The current issue of Daedalus—the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—focuses on access to justice in the US. All the articles are currently available for free download here.
See for example this provocative framing essay by Rebecca Sandefur, which draws on years of research by her and others. Doctor Sandefur says we shouldn’t assume that lawyers are the way to close the justice gap. This resonates with the experience of our movement, which has focused on community paralegals who can form a low-cost, creative frontline that pursues practical solutions to injustice.
Sandefur also argues that systemic problems need systemic solutions. She provides the example of debt claims against consumers, which currently flood lower civil courts in the U.S. Many of the claims are based on “bad paper”—inadequate documentation. Rather than endlessly providing legal aid to consumers, there is a structural solution: require creditors to produce specific documentation when they file. Sandefur explains that New York State implemented this change, and the cases against New York consumers dropped dramatically.
Here too, Sandefur’s argument resonates with the orientation of the legal empowerment movement. Good legal empowerment groups do not simply work on one retail case after another. We draw on our grassroots experience to pursue systemic change. When we aggregate and analyze data from our cases, we have something that often no one else has: a map of how systems are working in practice. We can use that information to identify and advocate for necessary reforms. When positive reforms are adopted, paralegals can help people to understand and use them. We call this the legal empowerment cycle.
Sandefur calls for more and better research, so we can understand the problems “well enough to design feasible and effective solutions.” This resonates with our aim of pursuing a common learning agenda on legal empowerment. See an article about that process here, by Erin Kitchell; thankfully Doc. Sandefur is taking part. Watch this space for more on the learning agenda in coming months, we’ll be seeking input from our whole community.
Overall, the collection of essays in Daedalus reminds me how much US practitioners and researchers have to learn from the global legal empowerment movement, and vice versa. National governments may be turning inward, but our movement for justice can and should work across borders.