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DOJ Mum on Access-to-Justice Plan as White House Deadline Passes [Corrected]

Oct. 5, 2021, 8:12 PMUpdated: Oct. 6, 2021, 7:47 PM

President Biden’s initiative to expand legal services for people who can’t afford lawyers is off to an uncertain start, with no indication the Justice Department met a deadline for planning the effort.

Biden gave Justice until Sept. 15 to give him a plan, including a budget and expected staffing, “to increase meaningful access to our legal system.” The goal, after President Trump left office, is to revive an access-to-justice push President Obama began in 2010.

No plan has been made public. Spokespersons for Attorney General Merrick Garland and the White House haven’t responded to questions about the status of it.

Biden called for the plan in a May 18 order that said low-income Americans receive no, or inadequate, services for more than 80% of civil legal issues they face each year, based on Legal Services Corp. figures.

Justice established the Office for Access in the department as part of Obama’s effort. The office existed until Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions effectively shuttered it. “I am committed to reinvigorating that work,” Biden said in his order.

The office, staffed with about 10 lawyers, has filed dozens of legal briefs on right-to-counsel and related cases. It also helped bolster funding for state-level court access programs and assisted other federal agencies focus on legal system access.

Biden’s fiscal 2022 “General Legal Activities” budget submission sets aside $6 million to fund eight office staffers.

The effort to reinvigorate the Justice office comes as several states—in each case spurred by a stated need to increase legal system access—make progress toward legal regulatory changes, including allowing nonlawyers to co-own legal operations.

Proponents of a renewed Justice office said that despite the deadline arriving without a public report, they remain optimistic that Biden’s commitment remains.

“Legal aid and improving access to justice for Americans in need are priorities for the Biden administration,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Penn.), said in a statement. “I look forward to advancing this important work with them.”

Scanlon is a co-sponsor of a bill that would make it tougher for future administrations to scrap the office.

Justice and the White House Domestic Policy Council, also under Obama, started the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable in 2012. The roundtable, which brought together officials from more than 20 executive agencies, is an entity that access-to-justice advocates say they also expect Biden to reinvigorate.

(Headline corrected to clarify that the Justice Department has not publicly released the plan.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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