ATLANTA—Georgia State University College of Law has established the Center for Access to Justice, a regional and national base for the study of issues relating to access to criminal and civil justice for those with limited financial means.
Similar centers exist across the United States, but there are none in the Southeast region.
“There is a critical need in this area to ensure that the justice system functions fairly and effectively,” said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, assistant professor of law and the center’s faculty director. “The experience of lower-income civil and criminal litigants is often fundamentally different from those with financial means. There are a lot of problems endemic to that system and not a lot of information available to understand the full scope of the problem or to find effective solutions.”
An important step in ensuring access to justice is making sure lawyers are available when needed to vindicate a client’s legal claim or defend a client against criminal charges, Lucas said. On the criminal side, excessive caseloads and a lack of resources can make it difficult for public defenders to provide their clients with effective representation.
On the civil side, where individuals are often not entitled to a lawyer regardless of their ability to pay, the issue may be whether a client can afford legal representation or has access to a lawyer at all, Lucas said. For example, there are six counties in Georgia with no attorneys and 40 counties with 10 attorneys or fewer. Yet more than 60 percent of low- and moderate-income households in Georgia experience one or more civil legal needs per year.
Lucas will work with Darcy Meals, the center’s assistant director, and student fellows to generate, highlight and disseminate research that helps identify and better understand the problems people have in gaining access to justice, as well as inform potential solutions.
The center was recently awarded a $79,000 grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to fund the first stage of a two-phase study on the civil legal needs of indigent criminal defendants. In conjunction with Georgia State’s Sociology, and Criminal Justice and Criminology departments, the center will work with public defender offices in Fulton and Dekalb counties to assess the nature and pervasiveness of civil legal issues facing those who enter the criminal justice system.
“The center will expand Georgia State Law’s ethos of undertaking initiatives designed to benefit communities in the administration of justice and doing so in a manner that furthers our students’ legal education and stresses the importance of these issues,” said Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law. “It will also work with other schools and colleges on campus to address critical issues to help that population be better served.”
“The center will bring together scholars, practitioners, law and policymakers, and members of the community to explore the difficulties low-income individuals face in attempting to navigate the justice system and to work together to develop solutions,” Lucas said.
Lucas said elements of the center’s work will be incorporated throughout the existing curriculum, in addition to a course, Access to Justice: Law Reform, she and Meals will co-teach in fall 2017.
Reform is needed, Lucas said. Of the low-income Americans who know they need legal help and seek it, nearly one million are denied assistance from legal aid providers every year because of insufficient funding resources.
These legal problems include the most important aspects of individuals’ lives: custody of their children, the ability to remain in their long-term housing, compensation for work they have performed and government benefits enabling them to put food on the table and obtain health care, Lucas said. And for those criminal defendants who receive inadequate representation, or for those who are incarcerated for the failure to pay fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system, the loss of one’s liberty is at stake.
“The center aims to create a supportive environment for students to think about these issues, to contribute to access to justice through public interest and pro bono work, and to engage with those practicing in the field,” Meals said.
Lucas agreed, adding, “When students go into practice, our hope is that they will continue to be mindful of these issues and incorporate access to justice ideals into their own work.”