Over the CBF’s first 70 years, advocacy at the federal, state and local levels has been a central part of our overall efforts to improve access to justice and make the legal system more fair and accessible for all. It has been quite a ride and has made a real difference, growing each year and with each new challenge.
So, what’s next, and why is it going to be even more important going forward?
The Growing Importance of Our Legal Community’s Advocacy Leadership
Our profession’s leadership responsibility to help ensure everyone has access to justice is central to who we are as lawyers and legal professionals. The legal community’s pro bono efforts and financial support for legal aid collectively help tens of thousands of people in need in our community to get vital legal assistance each year and continue to be essential, but these efforts alone are not enough to fulfill our responsibility.
We also need to use our leadership to make the case to legislators and officials at all levels of government about the integral role they play in the solution. Equal access to justice is one of our nation’s most fundamental principles and a core governmental responsibility, but government at all levels is falling far short of meeting that responsibility.
The long-term underinvestment in government funding for legal aid is by far the largest driver of the ongoing and sad reality that most low-income and disadvantaged people in our community cannot get the legal help they need today. And many of the larger systemic issues impacting access to justice require a legislative or governmental solution as well, yet too often are not adequately addressed.
These problems will not solve themselves, and our legal community needs to take an active leadership role in advocating for the necessary solutions at all levels. That is why advocacy will play an even more central part in the CBF’s larger efforts going forward, in the following ways:
Funding for Legal Aid
First and foremost, the CBF will continue to fight for increased government funding for legal aid and related initiatives at every level of government.
On the federal level, the Legal Services Corporation continues to play catch up after a long-term falloff that began nearly 40 years ago. Since 1981, LSC’s appropriation has dropped by more than half in real dollars (nearly $500 million!) at the same time as the number of Americans eligible and in need of legal aid has grown significantly. This is counter to who we are as Americans, that we are a country where liberty and justice should be for all, not just those who can afford it.
On the state level, despite many great champions and some notable successes like the groundbreaking program that helps veterans and military families to navigate the legal system, Illinois continues to rank shockingly low compared to other large states’ investment in legal aid for its residents. It is no secret that Illinois has fiscal issues that will continue to be a challenge for many years to come. Still, we know that beyond the more fundamental reasons for the state to ensure equal access to justice, legal aid has a 2:1 return on investment and is a solid financial choice for our state’s ability to grow and attract more people.
And on the local level, we’ll continue to advocate for programs like the Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program and others like it, as the needs of the courts and our community change and evolve. One concrete idea? Make sure that the civil court system is reflected in the County budget by name. Right now, this funding, along with the rest of the court’s budget, falls under the heading of “public safety,” which discounts the significance of the civil justice system and the integral role it plays in our community.
While we understand that financial challenges at every level of government will persist, there is a critical need for vast increases in funding for legal aid and related initiatives. The CBF will continue to be there to help lead the charge.
Student Debt and Access to Justice
We recently wrote a lengthier blog post on this subject that explains the reasons for our work, some of the improvements thus far, and how we see a path forward.
In short, our justice system cannot work without the talented attorneys and other legal professionals who commit their lives and careers to helping people in need. It is critical that we support these dedicated professionals and their families by developing a more fair and efficient system for financing higher education and finding ways to lighten the burden of the educational debt they have to incur in order to pursue this work.
Plain Language and Simplification
On the state level, the CBF has taken up the mantle, in partnership with the courts and other dedicated allies, to simplify the court processes and statutory language that so often can be a real barrier to the growing number of people without lawyers trying to navigate a legal system created for a different era. From evictions to court fees to the creation of a new Plain Language Task Force, the CBF has already accomplished much on this front.
But, there is so much more work to be done. Our next targets include simplifying the unduly complex legal terms currently known as “ad damnum,” “prayer for relief,” and “civil asset forfeiture.” We hope that each year, we can build on this work until our statutory scheme and court processes are understandable, efficient, and easier for everyone to navigate.
As we all know, the legislative and political landscape is ever changing. Technological advances and societal challenges will continue to throw us curveballs and create opportunities. What won’t change is that the primary responsibility for ensuring equal access to justice rests with government, the legal community needs to take the lead in making that case, and this will be an even bigger priority for the CBF going forward.