Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
I had the privilege of participating at the White House in a nationwide, live-streamed discussion with Attorney General Eric Holder about America’s urgent need to ensure quality legal representation for those who can’t afford it.
All of us who participated agreed that America cannot claim to provide ‘justice for all’ when millions don’t have the quality representation enjoyed by those with the resources to hire a lawyer. With millions of families facing economic crisis and legal services budgets being slashed, the need to close the justice gap has never been greater.
Studies show a dramatic increase in the number of people who cannot afford quality legal representation, just at the time that they are more likely to need help with life-changing legal issues -- employment, health care, foreclosure, tenant rights, child support, domestic violence, veteran’s services, disability, criminal charges, and more. For example, as many as 99 percent of individuals facing housing eviction have no representation at all and other studies show 95 percent going without representation in child support cases.
For 100 years the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s (NLADA) mission has been to improve America’s justice system. The oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to the delivery of legal services for people who cannot afford counsel, NLADA pioneered the creation of public defender systems after Gideon v. Wainwright, was instrumental in the creation of the Legal Services Corporation, and paved the way for the birth of clinical legal education at our nation’s law schools. In 2000, we led the creation of the National Indigent Defense Collaboration (NIDC), where we brought together six independent equal justice organizations to improve legal representation for low-income people in counties and states. We also formed the Project for the Future of Equal Justice (“PFEJ”), a partnership between NLADA and the Center for Law and Social Policy (“CLASP”). Through a combination of public education, research and assessment, technical assistance and leadership development we expanded access to counsel resources in Mississippi, Louisiana, Montana and elsewhere.
Building upon this history, The National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) will be launching a bold new initiative called Blueprint for Justice: Rethink. Retool. Rebuild this year to ensure quality legal representation for low-income people. It will be designed to encourage public/private partnerships, improved standards and accountability in the states, and better use of research, data and technology.
The White House event honored 16 of us as “Champions of Change” for our work in improving access to quality legal representation for all. I accepted this honor in the name of all of my “champions”- the individuals and organizations who work every day to make America a place where equal justice becomes a reality and not just a promise.
Please join our efforts to ensure quality legal representation for everyone in America. You can find out more at our website or by visiting our Facebook page at www.nlada.org/facebook or on Twitter at twitter.com/NLADA.
Jo-Ann Wallace is President and CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA),America’s largest nonprofit association devoted to excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel.