President's Letter

The ABA leads way on access to justice

  • Print

Mary Smith 2024 headshot

Photo courtesy of ABA President Mary Smith.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Legal Services Corp., the United States’ largest funder of civil legal aid. With a current congressional appropriation of $560 million, the LSC funds 131 independent legal aid programs with more than 800 offices serving every state and the U.S. territories.

The American Bar Association was critical to the LSC’s creation. In 1965, the ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution endorsing the first federal funding of civil legal aid. That resolution, personally drafted by then-ABA President and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., helped ensure the creation of a legal services program within the federal government. On July 25, 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Legal Services Corporation Act into law, making the program permanent. Every year since, the ABA has lobbied forcefully for LSC funding.

The need for legal services

The ABA’s advocacy for access to justice has never been more important than it is today. The failure of our justice system to meet the civil legal needs of low-income people has been well-documented. The LSC’s 2022 report, The Justice Gap: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, found that 92% of the civil legal problems of low-income people receive no or inadequate help. The National Center for State Courts estimates that a shocking 76% of civil cases in state courts involve at least one unrepresented litigant. The World Justice Project’s 2023 Rule of Law Index ranked the United States 115th among 142 countries for the affordability and accessibility of civil justice; and among the 46 wealthiest countries in the world, it ranked the United States 46th—dead last. Nationwide, there are just 2.8 paid legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 U.S. residents in poverty, per the 2023 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession. (See “Help Wanted,” page 38.) This report, like the 2023 ABA Impact Report, highlights the ABA’s thought leadership on issues of importance to the profession and work on cutting-edge projects.

Actions taken

The ABA’s work to improve access to justice is broad and deep.

ABA Free Legal Answers is a virtual legal advice clinic that lets qualifying users post civil legal questions to be answered at no cost by pro bono attorneys licensed in their state.

The Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, the ABA’s oldest standing committee (established in 1920), recently revised the ABA Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid, which for 60 years have provided best-practices guidance to the nation’s legal aid organizations.

• Our Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services Program teams with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide immediate legal assistance to disaster survivors at no charge.

• Our Standards for Language Access in Courts aim to ensure people can access courts in a language they understand—and that the courts understand them.

• Access-to-justice activities and pro bono programs permeate dozens of ABA divisions, sections, committees and commissions. Ways to help

Here are three things every lawyer can do to improve access to justice:

Pro Bono. Make pro bono work a regular part of your practice. Doing pro bono is a professional responsibility of all lawyers under Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1. Your local legal aid organization or bar association can get you any training or mentoring you need to provide competent representation.

Advocacy. Contact your members of Congress to advocate for increased funding for the Legal Services Corp. It’s important that they hear directly from constituents in their home districts and states. Educate them about the important work your local LSC-funded legal aid organization is doing.

Contributions. Support your local legal aid organizations generously. Legal aid providers are underfunded and regularly must turn away large numbers of people eligible for their services.

The ABA is proud to have led the charge to improve access to justice for all Americans for more than a century. Our commitment to fulfilling America’s solemn pledge of “justice for all” remains our North Star.

Follow President Smith on X @ABAPresident or email [email protected].

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.