This fall, the Center for Access to Justice celebrates its fifth anniversary. Launched in 2016, the Center created a space within the University to focus on how lower-income and other marginalized people navigate the civil and criminal legal systems in the South. Through research and education, the Center promotes meaningful access to the courts, helps people navigate the legal system, and trains the next generation of lawyers to serve the public interest.
In just five years, the Center has become a fixture in access to justice work, with Center faculty serving as recognized experts in the field. Center researchers have published several works on eviction in suburban and rural Georgia and detailed how dispossessory cases have been handled during the pandemic. Center faculty have produced an article on the civil legal needs of indigent criminal defendants, testified at a Georgia legislative hearing on intellectual disability and the death penalty, authored a report on misdemeanor bail reform for the Georgia Judicial Council, co-authored an article on rural access to justice issues, and supervised a student-written piece on self-help resources in Georgia. The Center also produced a white paper on civil justice reform and wrote a report and related op-ed about the role limited assistance can play for tenants in eviction court.
The Center’s impact has extended beyond its scholarly contributions. Since 2017, more than 60 students have gone on alternative spring break trips throughout the southeast, spending the week doing a deep dive into a substantive area of law and performing related pro bono service. Students have worked with Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) to represent families facing eviction; the state public defender in Mississippi to document access to counsel in lower-level criminal courts; Georgia Legal Services Program to produce short videos with just-in-time information for rural litigants navigating court without counsel; and the Southern Poverty Law Center to represent immigrants in detention in South Georgia.
Emily Gaston (J.D. ’20), who went on the AVLF trip, said “I went to law school to problem solve, and this trip allowed me to see how much I’ve learned after the tunnel vision of 1L year. It’s a privilege to use that knowledge to help people.” Garrett Groos (J.D. ’20) said of the week, “I’ve done service my whole life, but this was my first peek into the impact a lawyer can have.”
Pro Bono Program
That spirit of service also animates the Center’s award-winning Pro Bono Program. Since 2017, Georgia State law students have contributed more than 3500 hours through the Pro Bono Program with more than 12 organizational partners across a range of issue areas.
“The pro bono program ensures that law school doesn’t just facilitate the opportunity to better yourself, but to immediately access opportunities to help other people. You can explore multiple areas of law with experienced attorneys and organizations – with real impact along the way,” said Kate Billard (J.D. ’23).
Students who plan to spend their career promoting positive change can enroll in the Public Interest Law and Policy certificate program (PILP), also housed within the Center. PILP students are paired with a faculty advisor and pursue a curricular path designed to equip them with the experience and skills necessary to serve underrepresented communities. More than 50 current students are enrolled in the PILP program, and 40 students have graduated with the certificate in the last three years.
In addition to bringing in classes like Rights of People in Prison, taught by adjunct faculty from the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Center works to support faculty development across the curriculum. For example, in 2020-21, Center faculty worked with the Law Library to create the Racial Justice Resource list, a tool for faculty to bring in conversations and assignments about race and racism in the law in teaching required 1L courses.
Bridging the gap between the classroom and people’s lived reality is a core part of the Center’s curricular mission. Faculty Director Lauren Sudeall and Assistant Director Darcy Meals co-teach a course called Access to Justice: Law Reform, through which students gain an understanding of the obstacles self-represented litigants face in navigating the legal system. Through court observation and in-class discussion with invited experts, students identify a discrete access-to-justice problem and work together to design a solution.
“We spend the bulk of time in law school analyzing theoretical situations and learning black letter doctrine, and rightly so,” said Andrew Martin (J.D. ’19). 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.”
Beyond the classroom, the Center facilitates community education on access to justice issues by hosting numerous events. Dozens of speakers from across the country gather at the Center’s annual State of the South conference, which brings in more than 100 registrants from several states. The Center also hosts annual events aimed at promoting public interest work and helping students prepare for that career path, including an annual Public Interest Bootcamp. To that end, the Center has also facilitated summer funding for students working in the public interest, totaling close to $300,000 in three years.
Through its innovative student programs, timely research, and thought-provoking community education events, the Center for Access to Justice has made big strides in its first five years. Under new GSU Law Dean Lavonda Reed’s leadership, the Center is poised to continue to grow.