Law schools tend to focus, perhaps understandably, on the knowledge and skills lawyers need to serve their clients. But, in some states, 80 percent to 90 percent of litigants are unrepresented, and the number of these pro se litigants is on the rise. In Georgia, state courts heard more than 800,000 cases involving self-represented litigants in 2016 alone. Understanding how lower-income people experience the civil and criminal justice systems is a vital part of a complete legal education.
Lauren Sudeall Lucas, associate professor of law and founding faculty director of Georgia State Law’s Center for Access to Justice, co-teaches a yearlong course, Access to Justice: Law Reform, with center assistant director Darcy Meals.
Through court observation and in-class discussion with a variety of experts, students gain an understanding of the obstacles pro se litigants face when navigating the justice system. Students then identify a discrete access-to-justice problem and work in groups to design a solution. This year’s students are working on a range of projects, from revamping a court website to make it more user-friendly to designing a how-to guide for tenants seeking to challenge an eviction notice.
Having identified the problem they hope to solve, students spend the second semester developing their proposed solution. Assigned readings and guest speakers introduce the concepts of legal design, trends in technology and access to justice, and adult literacy and language access. Through additional field visits, interviews of relevant stakeholders, and secondary research, students craft a proposal they will present to decision-makers who can implement their design.
“The course is intended to expose students to some of the obstacles individual litigants face, but more than that, we hope it confirms students’ interest in promoting justice and striving to improve the profession of law,” Meals said. “Ideally, this course gives students the knowledge and the tools to see themselves as problem solvers who can make the legal system more accessible, even before they graduate and pass the bar.”
Brooke Wilner (J.D. ’18) says the opportunity to operationalize what she’s learning is what attracted her to the class.
“I took Access to Justice because I wanted to make a real, meaningful difference in the lives of Fulton County residents,” Wilner said. “This semester, I’ve gotten to not only study the legal background for access to justice issues, I’ve actually seen how those issues affect court processes and met the professionals who are working to address them.”
Making the connection between the academic and the practical is critical, Lucas said.
“Many people who can’t afford an attorney don’t even conceive of the law as something that can help them,” Lucas said. “We need to train lawyers not only to address their problems, but to see the profession through the eyes of those outside it.”
Andrew Martin (J.D. ’19) agrees. “We spend the bulk time in law school analyzing theoretical situations and learning black letter doctrine, and rightly so. These skills are essential to the practice of law. Experiential learning programs, like Access to Justice, show how the law impacts people on a day to day basis. Learning how the law interacts with society is just as essential as the other skills we learn in law school.”
With the justice gap growing and funds scarce, creative thinking and innovative solutions offer new possibilities to make courts more accessible to low-income litigants. Georgia State Law students in the Access to Justice course are developing inventive ways to bring justice within reach.