January 18, 2018

Vision and Mission

The Need
In most states, 80% or more of family law cases involve at least one unrepresented party, yet we have no knowledge of how to structure and deliver legal self-help materials. In every state, demand for legal services outstrips supply to such an extent that providers must triage civil and criminal clients, yet we have insufficient knowledge of how to triage well, or even what it means to triage well. In all states, resource scarcity compels providers to deploy varying levels and types of service, yet we have insufficient rigorous knowledge of the relative advantages or disadvantages of each level or type.

As we do more and more studies, we see examples of the barriers people face each day. In Philadelphia, you need access to a typewriter to get a divorce. Federal bankruptcy forms aren’t available in Spanish. People arrive in court and find the date on their notice doesn’t match the court docket.

With a lawyer, these challenges are surmountable. Without one, they can be catastrophic.

The access to justice gap in the U.S. is only growing wider. The magnitude of the problem is staggering.1 In 2017:

71% of low-income households have experienced a civil legal problem in the past year.

• Low-income Americans seek professional legal help for only 20% of the civil legal problems they face

86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help

The Vision
The U.S. legal system can be neither just nor efficient until its leaders and practitioners begin to rely on practices built on rigorous data about what works. If we don’t know how well interventions are working, we can’t improve services or allocate resources effectively. Transforming law into an evidence-based field will improve access to justice for individuals and families by ensuring they get the best resources available.

The Method
The Access to Justice (A2J) Lab advances the required transformation by implementing randomized experiments to find what works and then generalizing results into actionable lessons. The Lab creates knowledge, constructs best practices, and trains current and future scholars and practitioners to transform the U.S. legal system. We design and test our own access-to-justice interventions (such as self-help materials) and test interventions designed by our partners to learn what works best for individuals and families.

22 for 2022
To create and utilize the knowledge base necessary to transform the legal system, the profession needs both a strong database of rigorous information about what works and a coalition of decision-makers using that information to create a more just legal system. By 2022, we hope to have 22 of our own studies either completed or in the field. We also seek to have 15 academic partners with their own studies in the field and 20 jurisdictions engaged in randomized evaluations. These are ambitious goals, and we may not achieve them all, but the permanent crisis in the way the United States legal system interacts with human beings (as opposed to corporations) requires that we shoot high.

The History
In no field is resistance to rigorous, empirical data stronger than in United States legal practice. For more than a century, U. S. legal and adjudicatory practices have reflected an ethos of professionalism in which individual lawyers and judges purport to make irreducibly complex judgments about each client’s or litigant’s legal needs and the merits of their claims. The belief is that only a lawyer knows what is best for a client, and the only person a lawyer should listen to about her client’s legal needs is another lawyer. As a result, law currently recognizes only two sources of truth about what works and what doesn’t:  (i) the pronouncements of legal elites, and (ii) each individual lawyer’s or judge’s own personal experience.

Almost a century ago, U.S. medicine was the same. In  the 1920s and 1930s, doctors thought that they alone, as professionals, knew what was best for patients, and that no non-physician could say anything useful to improve professional medical judgments. In this time period, medicine recognized only two sources of truth about what worked:  (i) the pronouncements of medical elites, and (ii) each physician’s own personal experiences with “his” particular patients.

Medicine transformed itself from an art into (more of) a science. Law is a field equally charged with making life-or-death decisions and is also equally capable of changing into a research-based profession.

Statistics from The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, Legal Services Corporations (2017) https://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/images/TheJusticeGap-FullReport.pdf