The Justice for All Initiative
Making America’s justice system more responsive to people’s everyday civil legal needs through innovation, collaboration and support of statewide efforts.
At the heart of the Justice for All initiative is a reframing of the concept of what the justice “system” really means. No longer does it begin at the courthouse doors. In the Justice for All approach, anyone—with or without a lawyer’s help—can access often-needed components of the system at their local library, school, domestic violence shelter or other social service agency, or even from their own smartphone or computer. And once across the initial threshold, users will encounter a continuum of services from self-help materials to alternative dispute resolution to limited-scope or full legal representation.
The Justice for All initiative involves a broad range of stakeholders in reform in order to address the needs not only of those already in the court process, but also of people with unmet civil legal problems who could benefit from legal help—even if they don’t yet realize their problems have a legal solution.
Housed at the National Center for State Courts and operating in partnership with the Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN), the Justice for All initiative offers a framework for engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to systematically expand access to justice. Through broad collaboration, it ensures there is no wrong door through which to enter the civil justice system.
Building on decades of innovation
Judges, court administrators, private bar leaders, and civil legal aid and pro bono providers nationwide have long been experimenting with a range of innovations, including:
- self-help centers providing unrepresented litigants legal information and standardized forms;
- language access initiatives for court users with limited English proficiency;
- accommodations for court users with disabilities
- judicial and court staff education efforts to address the needs of self-represented litigants with procedural fairness and compassion;
- the adoption of technologies that reduce trips to the courthouse and enable court users to find legal help and resolve their disputes online;
- and, in certain jurisdictions, efforts to simplify court processes to meet the needs of the unrepresented users.
While these innovations have led to improvements, they are often limited to a single area such as family law or else limited in their scope, either by geography or by a focus only on users already engaged in the court process.
Through grants and engagement with 14 states, the Justice for All initiative has supported systems-oriented strategic planning that has built on decades of innovation to address the needs of all people with unmet civil legal issues and ensure they get the help they need, in the form they need it, when they need it. Going forward, the initiative will focus on sharing what has been learned through these pilot projects while continuing to support those states still undergoing their strategic planning process.
As part of this work, state-level teams form new collaborations among diverse partners, including non-legal stakeholders such as direct human services providers, libraries, schools, community organizations, and other state and local branches of government.
Addressing an increasing need with a comprehensive solution
With rising poverty, diminishing resources for civil legal aid and pro bono programs, and a massive spike in self-represented litigants showing up in state courts, the need to improve access to justice has become increasingly urgent.
Our system of state courts was designed by and for trained legal advocates, but this lawyer-centric approach is not meeting the needs of the majority. Recent studies, including two from the National Center for State Courts, show that most civil and family law cases involve at least one self-represented party. Furthermore, social science research by MacArthur Genius Fellow Rebecca Sandefur has revealed that the number of people grappling with unresolved civil legal problems—about 100 million a year—is actually much larger than the number coming to court, and that vulnerable communities face disproportionately greater numbers of unmet legal needs.
By creating new entryways into the system, as well as a guided continuum of pathways through it, the Justice for All initiative seeks to provide 100 percent access to civil justice in accordance with the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) resolution on Meaningful Access to Justice for All. (See also CCJ/COSCA Resolution 3.)
The project is chaired by the Honorable Ralph Gants, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and the Honorable Laurie Zelon, Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. It is supported by Public Welfare Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and The JPB Foundation, and it is staffed by National Center for State Courts and SRLN.