Participatory Research on Access to Justice

Across the country, the legal needs of residents have been exacerbated since the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil, family, criminal, and other issues can be intertwined and impact both individual and community well-being. These legal needs are experienced most acutely by people of color who reside in historically under-resourced neighborhoods. Yet, it is often difficult to engage these residents to understand their perspectives on access to justice issues and racial equity in the courts.

The pandemic also propelled courts to change how they operate. Many courts have now embraced technological solutions to hold court remotely. These innovations have the potential to improve access to justice for people of all backgrounds, but they were likely not designed for equitable impact in low-income communities of color. Remote settings could even exacerbate inequities in access for people experiencing the digital divide and limited legal resources (e.g., representation).

Engagement and collaboration with community members is needed to identify and address the current challenges that low-income people of color face in their community and local court.

With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, NCSC has established a participatory research program to identify and meet the needs of the communities most impacted by legal issues and involvement in the courts. Community representatives will serve as co-researchers with NCSC staff who bring formal research training and background to the project.

The aim of this research is to:

  • increase awareness and responsiveness of courts to the needs of under-resourced Black and Brown communities,
  • strengthen community-based resources and responses to resident’s legal issues, and
  • promote fair, equitable, and inclusive models of holding court, whether they are in-person, hybrid, or remote.

NCSC will directly engage with courts and community organizations in the research to identify court practice and process improvements. Specifically, NCSC will manage the project activities, ensuring that it builds in community voices and values. This direct engagement with low-income communities of color will allow for greater insight and action on effective and sustainable changes.

Funding will be made available for up to 3 local jurisdictions and for up to $40,000 each.

Applicants will be expected to support local court collaboration with NCSC and community leaders, residents, and people impacted by legal needs and the courts. Selected sites will receive funding and implementation assistance from NCSC for up to a 10-month period for community participatory evaluation activities.

Program Description


Eligible applicants include tribal, state or local courts and community-based organizations, including 501(c)(3)s. Applications from local courts must agree to engage community participation (e.g., from a local organization) to convene stakeholders and support research activities. Local organizations that apply are encouraged to submit a letter of support from a local court.

The project will not fund:

  • Individuals,
  • Universities,
  • Governmental entities (except local courts or judiciaries),
  • Projects that are statewide,
  • International projects, or
  • Projects that include court-led, rather than community-led, research activities.

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until all sites are selected and under contract. There will be 3 main components of the  work - project planning, study implementation, and development of deliverables.

Grant requirements and expectations

Projects must focus on access to justice for communities of color and development of policy recommendations and changes.

For purposes of this program, we use the National Center for Access to Justice definition of access to justice as the meaningful opportunity to be heard, secure one’s rights and obtain the law’s protection. This definition expands beyond one’s ability to access the courts and legal representation. It includes the ability to engage effectively with the legal system and to make use of early interventions, and it spans civil and criminal legal systems.

Other requirements for grant recipients include the willingness to:

  • Empower local organizations and residents to co-design the research and/or serve as project advisors;
  • Engage community residents and leaders, local government or social services agencies, local institutions (e.g., schools, faith-based organizations), and people most impacted by legal needs;
  • Provide evaluators with information on court policy and practice changes;
  • Execute a data use agreement to engage in qualitative and quantitative research; and
  • Release public-facing research summaries.
How to express interest

NCSC is requesting that local courts and community-based organizations submit an interest form through our online portal.

Submit an interest form based on whether you are with a:

  1. Local Court
  2. Community-Based Organization

Click to preview the questions before entering the form.

Information sessions will be scheduled with interested sites.

Site selection

Select sites will be invited to apply. Site selection will be based on several criteria, including a demonstrated interest in improving access to justice for historically underserved populations, an openness to creative and innovative thinking about the future of courts, and the ability to collaborate with NCSC in the research activities, including participant recruitment and qualitative data collection (e.g., listening sessions, focus groups, survey distribution, etc.).

NCSC seeks to fund a diverse group of jurisdictions from different geographic regions and with different types of court systems. Priority consideration will be given to applicants serving historically underfunded neighborhoods.

For more information, please contact Kelly Freeman, Senior Court Research Associate at NCSC.

Questions & Answers

Up to $40,000 for each site. A budget form will be requested from sites that complete the interest form and full application.

Funding will be provided primarily to compensate local community organizations for their time spent on research activities. These activities might be to establish a community advisory board, provide program or service data, assist with study participant recruitment, and establish subawards for partnering organizations to engage in the research process with NCSC.

NCSC will support incentives for research participants - this does not need to be included in a site's budget.

Projects can focus on:

  • Collecting demographic and other types of data to improve equity in the courts,
  • Gathering insights about the nature and outcomes of resident experiences with the local courts,
  • Existing programs or services offered to improve access to justice and interactions with the courts,
  • The effectiveness of diversion or community-based services to reduce court involvement,
  • Assessing remote methods of holding court, or
  • Any combination of the above.

Please reach out to Kelly Freeman for inquiries about specific topics.

Interested sites should describe:

  • The court and/or community-based organization that will be the lead point of contact for the project
    • For interested courts, how they are using remote/hybrid hearings
  • The need for this work within a local community
    • The characteristics of the local population/locality that will be directly impacted
    • Prior research on local access to justice issues, if available
    • Prior community engagement work conducted, if applicable
  • Capacity of the lead organization to engage with NCSC on the work specified
    • Able to enter into data use agreement
    • Can support the research activities (planning, data collection, analysis, and reporting)
  • How the work will support racial equity and community collaboration with the courts
  • Openness to broader dissemination of finding

Submission of an interest form does not commit a site to participate in this program.

NCSC staff will review responses from those who complete the interest form and request to schedule an information session. This information session can be conducted by phone, videoconference, or email depending on the site's preference. This session will allow sites to ask questions, share their ideas for the work, and discuss application logistics.

The application will be shared with sites that submit an interest form. This application will request a project task timeline, administrative information about the organization, and a budget.

Does the site seek to advance meaningful community participation in policy change? Is the application compelling?

Are the activities, timeline, and budget proposed realistic and feasible? Will funding be used to support community-based organizations or co-researchers?

Is the lead applicant a locally-based entity capable of participating in the research with NCSC, or are they partnered with such an entity?

"Participatory research (PR) encompasses research designs, methods, and frameworks that use systematic inquiry in direct collaboration with those affected by an issue being studied for the purpose of action or change. PR engages those who are not necessarily trained in research but belong to or represent the interests of the people who are the focus of the research. Researchers utilizing a PR approach often choose research methods and tools that can be conducted in a participatory, democratic manner that values genuine and meaningful participation in the research process." Vaughn and Jacquez (2020)

Program Supported By:

W.K. Kellogg Foundation