By Dr. Alison Becker | 10/16/2023
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that it was created to guide America’s efforts to “form a more perfect Union,” including the national hunger to “establish Justice.”
But nowadays, access to the required legal services are often expensive and unavailable to people of lesser incomes. Competent, successful legal assistance has become a commodity for the wealthy. How can our society secure equal access to justice and adequate, affordable legal representation for those of more modest means? Making legal services accessible to everyone should be priority number one.
Not Everyone Can Afford Access To Justice or Legal Assistance
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, millions of Americans have not been able to pay the costs of professional legal assistance when they need it the most, when they need to resolve disputes, or when they simply have a legal question.
This unfortunate reality has caused an imbalance in representation by attorneys, and access to justice, with significant socioeconomic impacts.
Many people have faced problems such as an employment issue, a housing dispute, personal injury, domestic violence or just a simple criminal matter. But, many of those people are unable to afford a suitable lawyer and cannot access the required resources to take their matter to court.
During this challenging time, many people, including low income individuals and even those of model means, find themselves unable to receive timely, competent help.
As a result, problems remain unresolved and plaintiffs end up sacrificing their constitutional rights or fighting alone in a complex, unfamiliar environment.
The inability to afford assistance affects countless numbers of people; it is a widespread problem that extends beyond the poor and disenfranchised who are most severely impacted by not having access to justice. Nearly everyone is adversely affected in one way or another.
Some severely under-resourced providers are available to the public, but they are near collapse in many places.
These kinds of free legal services, like public defenders, are only funded for criminal law support to the poor.
However, everyone – regardless of economic status or education – has a Constitutional right to an attorney to help with legal problems. That said, a citizen's access to justice varies wildly.
Frequently, publicly accessible legal assistance programs are forced to turn away legitimate clients because there aren’t enough resources to support them at the level these individuals need. Many individuals need an attorney to help with other legal issues.
Public awareness is growing about the need to address such inequities within our justice system. Each state’s own state bar association has a committee focused on improving "access to justice" to help make legal assistance available to all.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice even has an office dedicated to “help[ing] the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.”
Access to Justice Is Opening More Doors To Legal Assistance and Legal Aid
Because each state is working on this enormous problem, the results to date are somewhat uneven and some states are further along than others. Each state has different challenges that it is trying to solve, often related to differences in urban and rural zones.
Nonetheless, the access to justice movement is prompting fresh ideas and questions about who can provide services.
Significant consideration is being given to whether the legal profession is ripe for a wider array of licenses and certifications to resolve the problem of providing affordable, competent, and ethical legal services to the people who need to access them.
For example, several states have pilot projects that allow paralegals – professionals who primarily assist attorneys – the ability to directly serve clients.
Paralegals can often provide legal services at a significantly more affordable cost than typical attorney fees.
For example, paralegals in Utah are now able to directly assist their own clients on legal matters within a narrow scope that includes family matters, forcible entry, personal injury, domestic violence issues, debt collection, and other legal problems.
Similar pilot projects exist in Arizona, Minnesota and Oregon; it’s expected that additional states will follow suit to expand this access to justice movement.
Utah also has an Office of Legal Services Innovation, which offers a “sandbox” where nonlawyers can try to find better or more efficient ways to deliver legal help to people.
These new initiatives expand the professional capacity of paralegals as legal professionals, and other states are taking notice.
Preparing Paralegals to Provide More Access to Justice and Legal Assistance
Paralegals, lawyers, and other people inspired by the access to justice movement must prepare for these new responsibilities.
To aid this effort to help ensure legal assistance to all, the University’s Legal Studies department has recently added new concentrations to our online bachelor’s degree in legal studies.
For example, our legal entrepreneurism concentration combines knowledge with critical business courses.
This concentration provides an avenue for those students who seek to work in a position that combines both the legal and entrepreneurial business fields.
This concentration is just one part of the Legal Studies department’s overarching strategic goal to meet society’s needs and sharpen students’ abilities to meet those needs.
This interdisciplinary effort will continue to expand as time passes, because it is needed to help members of society gain better, more affordable access to justice.
Non-lawyer professionals are key to overcoming the weighty problem of affordable representation in practical ways. Together, we can help bring fair access to justice to everyone.
American Public University's Online Bachelor's Degree in Legal Studies
American Public University's Bachelor of Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies in Legal Studies program is tailor-made for individuals with an interest in the legal system. Our program has a comprehensive curriculum designed to provide students with a solid foundation in legal doctrine, legal research and writing, and more.
One of the program's key strengths is its emphasis on developing a broad range of competencies. As a student, you will learn to apply theories, processes, and concepts in practical scenarios. You'll also gain skills in the principles of civil and criminal litigation, including how to conduct analyses and apply legal principles and concepts to various situations.
Dr. Alison Becker has practiced governmental law for more than 25 years as well as provided various kinds of legal instruction and training. She earned a B.A. and a J.D. from Northern Kentucky University prior to earning an Ed. D. from Northcentral University, with special emphasis on legal e-learning