For over 100 years, visionary lawyers and other leaders have struggled to establish a comprehensive system to deliver some measure of equal justice to all Americans. Throughout this history, those leaders have argued that access to civil legal aid is essential to democracy. As Reginald Heber Smith put it in his seminal 1919 treatise, Justice and the Poor, without equal access to the law, “the system not only robs the poor of their only protection, but it places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever invented."
From humble beginnings in New York in the late 19th century, to a federal program in the 1960s initiated by Sargent Shriver under the auspices of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to establishment of the Legal Services Corporation in the 1970s, civil legal services gained a foothold as an important priority and grew. As evidence of the success of the strategy, civil legal services encountered retrenchment and battles for survival in the 1980s and 1990s. Programs were forced to adapt their delivery models and develop new funding sources.
The history of the civil legal aid movement is outlined in a recently published Clearinghouse Article by Victor Geminiani, which reviews Earl Johnson Jr.’s three-volume treatise, To Establish Justice for All: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States. Noting the debt we owe the leaders who came before us, Geminiani urges the importance of pursuing systemic advocacy as an important part of delivering equal justice for low-income clients. Although “systemic advocacy is usually the fault line for most political and public support” for legal services, Geminiani argues it is essential for us to use the law to attack basic barriers to fair and equal treatment from governmental institutions and people in power.
As the political environment has evolved, policy development at the state level has taken on more importance for low-income clients and communities. In implementing even the most aggressively “national” federal initiatives, states and localities make dozens of choices involving funding, program design, staffing, and evaluation. Moreover, many important issues affecting people living in poverty, like criminal justice, jobs and workplace issues, domestic or community violence, and most aspects of public education, involve little or no role for the national government.
In recognition of this, the Shriver Center has recently organized the Legal Impact Network, a group of state-based and state-focused law and policy organizations. These organizations are dedicated to working with and for people in poverty and community-based leaders to provide the professional services needed for them to have an effective voice in these state and local policy debates. The organizations have the subject matter and procedural expertise, policy knowledge, and legal skills to identify and evaluate the state policy choices, engage in litigation where necessary, educate allies and the general public, and otherwise drive important systems change. The Legal Impact Network is exploring ways for this work to be more effective and productive when co-strategized and coordinated across multiple states. The Legal Impact Network currently includes organizations from 29 states, which have 37 million of the 49 million Americans living in poverty.
Geminiani effectively summarizes Earl Johnson’s important history of civil legal services, including the substantial accomplishments of legal services advocates and their clients in the past century. He makes a compelling argument for the continuing expansion and improvement of all aspects of this mission, but especially that advocates should continue to pursue systemic advocacy on behalf of low-income clients and build networks, like the Legal Impact Network, to support that work.