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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable

Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, Stacy, especially for your partnership in this. I really appreciate it. Thank you everyone for being here today and for your contributions throughout this year’s Roundtable discussions and process.

Last Fall, I announced that the Justice Department would be restoring a standalone Office for Access to Justice.

That Office is now comprised of nearly 20 attorneys and staff. It houses the Federal Government Pro Bono Program, the Justice Department’s first-ever Language Access Coordinator, and attorneys and staff with expertise in criminal indigent defense, immigration, veterans’ issues, and other matters.

The Office has already begun to work in partnership with those on the front lines to identify and address the most urgent legal needs of communities across America. 

One of the Office’s most important responsibilities is supporting the work of this Roundtable.

Last year, the Roundtable’s work examined the ways in which the pandemic exacerbated access-to-justice gaps in a variety of contexts. It also highlighted the innovative strategies that Roundtable members adopted in response.  

This year, the work continues – this time to focus on bridging those gaps by examining the ways in which simplifying government forms and processes can help the American people access federal services, benefits, and programs.

When government forms and processes are only accessible to lawyers or those who can afford them, everyone suffers. People are shut out of benefits to which they are entitled and to services on which they rely. Legal providers are overwhelmed and overworked. The justice gap widens. And the trust between our agencies and the public that they serve is eroded.

These burdens are felt most directly by the elderly; by people with disabilities; by people who speak a language other than English; and by people with limited access to a computer, the internet, a phone, or transportation.

Moreover, as civil legal aid providers know all too well, in many instances navigating these issues requires the assistance of an attorney. According to the Legal Services Corporation’s 2022 “Justice Gap Report,” 35% of low-income individuals seeking legal assistance needed help just to fill out the paperwork and forms.

When legal aid providers must assist their clients with work that should not require a lawyer, their time and resources are taken away from other urgent matters. They have less time to spend on preventing families from being evicted or filing restraining orders on behalf of survivors of domestic violence.

And for this 2022 Roundtable, the staff of our Office for Access to Justice focused on ways in which the federal government could simplify its forms and processes to reduce the need for communities to seek legal aid. In doing so, we collected input from over 80 legal aid and advocacy organizations from 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. 

The Roundtable’s 2022 report will include a roadmap to help agencies expand access to federal government programs and services.

As we will hear this afternoon, many agencies have already done a great deal of work to simplify forms and processes, and others have committed to additional efforts in the months to come.

I would like to share just one example from the Justice Department. This year, the Civil Rights Division adopted a practice of using plain language for its public facing documents to help people understand their legal rights and obligations. 

To that end, we redesigned ADA.gov, the website the Division maintains for information about the rights of Americans with disabilities. The redesign was based on multiple rounds of user testing and feedback and includes simple explanations designed for those without a legal background.

Other examples are detailed in the forthcoming report, and the Department is committed to exploring additional ways to assess and reduce barriers to access.

Before I close, I want to recognize the Director of our Office for Access to Justice, Rachel Rossi, not only for graciously agreeing to keep today’s meeting on track, but also for her work in standing up the Office. As you can tell, she’s very efficient. Everybody will be held to their time. And similarly, standing up the Office was held to its time, and it’s quite amazing we were able to stand up an Office from zero to the number of people we have now working there. Thanks go to Rachel and the team.

I am grateful to the entire staff for their efforts over the past three months – several months – to stand up and support this Roundtable. 

I also want to recognize the extraordinary leadership of Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who’s too humble. She’s kind of looking away here. She will be speaking in a few minutes. Vanita has been a champion for advancing access to justice throughout her career.

And finally, I want to take this opportunity to announce that I have designated Allie Yang-Green as the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. Allie, please raise your hand. There she is.

Allie is an alumnus of the first Office for Access to Justice, which was established in 2016. She assisted with coordinating the activities of the Roundtable at that time, and I expect many people in this room already know her. We are very happy to welcome her back to DOJ.

I look forward to hearing from each of you today about the work of your agencies.

I know that all of you will continue to engage regularly with legal aid providers, the advocacy organizations, and affected communities to identify further opportunities for simplification.

Thank you all again for your partnership and for your commitment to easing access to justice.

Source: USDOJ