Online Justice Index Maps Legal Access in America

The National Center for Access to Justice now collects and presents national and state data on access to legal representation for a variety of underprivileged groups.

, Law Technology News

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The National Center for Access to Justice has launched the Justice Index, an online project that maps the geography of justice in America.

How can one hope to map such a broad and potentially philosophical concept as “justice”? The site’s first iteration, currently available at www.justiceindex.org, starts to map out this geography by collecting and presenting national and state-by-state data on access to legal representation for a variety of underprivileged groups. Users can view interactive maps that help them visualize the disparities in access to justice for people in poverty, people with limited proficiency in English, people with disabilities, and people proceeding through the legal system without lawyers. The ratings in each category are based on a series of weighted assessments of state statutes and rules, available funding, professional training requirements, and other legal processes and policies.

The site provides both nationwide and state-based statistics. On the broadest level, it notes that nationwide, there is one attorney working for every 10,000 people in poverty, compared with 40 attorneys working for every 10,000 people above the poverty level. Regarding self-representation, approximately one-quarter of states do not authorize court clerks to provide informational assistance to self-represented litigants, and almost one-half of the states do not authorize judges to take steps to ensure that unrepresented individuals are fairly heard. The statistics on language access are similarly sobering: close to one-half of state judiciary websites are entirely in English, while almost one-quarter of the states allow judges to charge a deaf or hearing-impaired person for the cost of a sign language interpreter.

Based on measurements like these, the Justice Index provides two overall score categories for individual states, allowing them to be broadly compared with each other. A composite score shows the overall performance of a state in all data categories, and a categorical score shows the performance of each state in each individual category (attorney access, self-representation, language assistance and disability assistance). Minnesota, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Washington and Colorado currently lead the composite score index of providing higher access to justice than other states.

But what does it mean to lead the nation in these sorts of categories? Vermont has the highest number of attorneys per 10,000 people in poverty: 4.35. Texas is last, with a mere 0.43 attorneys per 10,000 in poverty. But although Vermont has 10 times the attorney power of Texas for those in poverty, both numbers should be compared with a nationwide average of 40 attorneys per 10,000 people. At best, then, a person in poverty can expect to have one-tenth the attorney power of the nationwide average; at worst, it’s closer to one-one hundredth.

According to David Udell, executive director of NCAJ, a primary goal of this work is to “start the conversation about where best practices are in place or needed in our state justice systems.” The project is guided by the NCAJ, and was produced with the collaboration and contributions of multiple pro bono supporters, including the Pfizer Legal Alliance (PLA), teams of attorneys and staff from Skadden Arps and UBS, teams of law students from Cardozo School of Law and the University fo Pennsylvania School of Law, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, and design firm MSDS. The NCAJ (www.ncforaj.org) plans to continue the conversation by releasing a second installment of the Justice Index later this year.

Freelance writer Katherine Montgomery is a former associate editor of Law Technology News.

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