The White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (WH-LAIR) recently issued its first report to President Obama, “Expanding Access to Justice, Strengthening Federal Programs.” The report documents the steps that the 22 federal agency roundtable members have taken to integrate civil legal aid into programs designed to serve low-income and vulnerable populations, with an aim of boosting their effectiveness and increasing access to justice.
The report was funded by the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice and serves as a blueprint for how federal agencies can expand their collaborations with legal aid to address issues such as domestic violence, human trafficking, crime, reentry, financial exploitation of the elderly, and veteran homelessness. The report includes research and data on the efficacy of legal aid and makes policy recommendations for improving access to civil legal aid for youth, families, tribal communities, and special populations.
The Department of Justice and the White House Domestic Policy Council first convened the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable in 2012. In September 2015, President Obama formally recognized the success of their efforts by designating the roundtable as a White House initiative, requiring annual reporting. WH-LAIR’s mission enumerated in the Presidential Memorandum is fivefold:
- improve coordination among federal programs that help the vulnerable and underserved, so that those programs are more efficient and produce better outcomes by including, where appropriate, legal services among the range of supportive services provided;
- increase the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status;
- develop policy recommendations that improve access to justice in federal, state, local, tribal, and international jurisdictions;
- assist the United States with implementation of Goal 16 of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and
- advance relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis of civil legal aid and indigent defense, and promulgate best practices to support the activities detailed in [1-4 above].
Their efforts fall into four categories: leveraging resources to strengthen Federal programs by incorporating legal aid; developing policy recommendations that improve access to justice; facilitating strategic partnerships to achieve enforcement and outreach objectives; and advancing evidence-based research, data collection and analysis. One of the key components of LAIR’s work was the review of numerous federal grants from the perspective of potentially expanding the use of funds to incorporate legal aid into program strategies. As a result, many agencies clarified that dozens of grants can be used by grantees to provide legal services in furtherance of their program goals. The number of long-term, far-reaching and positive outcomes of the first four years of effort by member agencies are very encouraging.
Some key initiatives reported:
- HHS clarified that legal aid is included in the range of “enabling services” that HHS-funded health centers can provide to meet communities’ primary care needs.
- CNCS and DOJ fund the Elder Justice AmeriCorps to help elder abuse victims and launched justice AmeriCorps to increase legal aid to unrepresented unaccompanied immigrant minors.
- VA issued guidance supporting veterans’ access to legal aid at VA medical facilities.
- IRS administers three grant programs to help low-income and other taxpayers in need with tax returns and tax disputes.
- HUD funds fair housing enforcement organizations, including legal aid programs and a program that allows using funds for legal aid necessary to regain housing stability.
- FTC developed the Legal Services Collaboration, a nationwide partnership with legal aid, to inform FTC’s law enforcement priorities and allow FTC to alert local communities about scams and respond to local concerns.
- LSC is undertaking a new national legal needs survey to update the Justice Gap studies of 2005 and 2009.
- WH-LAIR itself has online resources that provide information about civil legal aid and federal funding opportunities on the WH-LAIR website and in the Toolkit.
WH-LAIR agencies are also looking forward to the steps they can take to further improve meaningful access to justice for all Americans. Several agencies are reviewing funding competitions and training and technical assistance programs to determine how grantees can use more funds to provide legal aid among program services. Agencies plan to develop a broader range of policies that further expanding access to justice and work towards effective implementation of those policies. Following the FTC’s lead with its Legal Services Collaboration, other agencies with enforcement mandates are exploring ways to work with legal aid to increase enforcement efforts and amplify their outreach. Finally, WH-LAIR agencies are developing metrics for evaluating whether and how legal aid improves agency programs.
This first report demonstrates in a variety of ways the vital importance of legal aid as part of federal programs and chronicles numerous program creation and expansions which have had a direct and positive impact on the communities and populations they serve. Moving forward, one goal is for agencies to use the best practices developed to further expand access to justice and strengthen federal programs.