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Garland Restores Office Providing Access to Legal Services for the Poor

November 1, 2021 by Dan McCue
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about voting rights at the Justice Department in Washington, on Friday, June 11, 2021. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday re-established a Justice Department office intended to expand legal services to people who can’t afford layers.

The Office for Access to Justice was originally launched during the Obama administration to address what the Justice Department then described as an “access-to-justice crisis in the criminal and civil justice system.”

But Republicans on Capitol Hill argued for years that the office was duplicating the work of legal aid services, and in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions closed it down.

In a report entitled “The Department of Injustice Under Jeff Sessions,” the American Civil Liberties Union argued the office should be reopened, resting its assertion on a DOJ analysis that, based on poverty rates in the country, more than 60 million Americans would qualify for free legal assistance.

In addition, the ACLU noted, in more than three-fourths of all civil trial cases in the country, at least one party is proceeding without legal counsel.

President Joe Biden campaigned in part in 2020 on restoring the office, and in May set the process in motion by executive order.

In announcing the reopening on Friday, Garland said in a statement, “There can be no equal justice without equal access to justice … because we do not yet have equal access to justice in America, the task before us is urgent.”

The restored office is dedicated to expanding access to legal services for the poor by filing right-to-counsel legal briefs and advocating for state-level legal programs for the poor, among other activities.

The plan Garland released Friday said the office will focus on federal policies and litigation positions on equal access to justice. 

It also will reestablish the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which will convene federal agencies to identify ways to address pressing legal services challenges, including those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The roundtable will be co-chaired by Garland and  White House Counsel Dana Remus.

Its first report to the president examines the impact of the pandemic on access to various programs, initiatives, and services across the federal government.  

It also describes significant challenges faced during the pandemic, including in the areas of housing and evictions, health care, consumer protection, immigration, and criminal justice.  

The report also describes key lessons learned, creative innovations in access to justice, and areas of continued collaboration for the roundtable, the White House said.

Reginald Turner, president of the American Bar Association, said in a statement that the ABA welcomed Garland’s announcement and looks forward to working with the White House to advance access to justice issues.

“We also thank the Department of Justice for inviting the ABA to collaborate on the successful White House Summit on Eviction Prevention and Diversion on June 30, which convened local government, judicial, legal and community leaders from 46 cities to develop community-specific eviction diversion programs,” Turner said. “The ABA calls on the legal community to continue its efforts to address an evictions crisis that threatens the livelihood and safety of renters and landlords and strains our legal system.”

In July, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led in the House by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and including Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Don Bacon, R- Neb., introduced a bill to restore both the Office for Access to Justice and the interagency roundtable.

Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and and John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced companion legislation in the Senate. 

“Every American, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserves equal justice under the law,” Nadler said at the time. “Unfortunately, far too many do not have access to the legal help they need. That’s why I am introducing legislation to establish the Office for Access to Justice, ensuring that those most in need have the same access to legal help as everyone else. 

“I applaud President Biden for his efforts to revive this vital resource at the Department of Justice, and I look forward to working together as we seek to root out systemic inequities in our justice system,” Nadler said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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