Attorney General Merrick Garland has re-established a Justice Department office that aims to expand services for people who can’t afford lawyers, making good on a promise by President Joe Biden.
The Office for Access to Justice, included in a new agency flow chart Garland signed on Thursday, is part of his broader plan to expand legal services in the federal government for low-income Americans.
“There can be no equal justice without equal access to justice,” Garland in a statement on Friday. “Because we do not yet have equal access to justice in America, the task before us is urgent.”
Civil rights organizations have pressed the Biden administration to restore the Justice office that was created under President Barack Obama in 2010 and then effectively shuttered during President Donald Trump’s administration.
Biden in a May 18 executive order told Garland to come up with an access-to-justice plan that included reviving the Justice office.
The plan Garland released Friday said the office will focus on federal policies and litigation positions on equal access to justice. It also will staff the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which coordinates with civil legal aid groups, according to the document.
The plan is “a solid start,” Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who led the office under Obama, said in a statement. “It remains to be seen how effectively those plans will be implemented, but I have every reason to be optimistic.”
Maha Jweied, the office’s final acting director during the Obama years, said the office has been missed as the country grapples with a pandemic and wrestles with racial disparities in the nation’s legal system.
The office’s opening “is both gratifying and thrilling,” she said.
The office under Obama worked to increase funding for state-level access programs and filed legal briefs on right-to-counsel and related cases. Some Republicans criticized the office for duplicating the work of legal aid groups.
Biden’s fiscal 2022 “General Legal Activities” budget submission set aside $6 million to fund eight office staffers. It’s currently unclear who will lead the office.
The White House in a statement Friday highlighted its efforts to advance racial equity and make criminal justice more fair. “Improving access to counsel, the courts, and federal programs builds on each of these efforts,” the statement said.