During a recent day of strategic planning at RSI, one of the ideas our staff explored was how alternative dispute resolution (ADR) helps to increase access to justice (ATJ or A2J). This idea is close to my heart; improving the accessibility of our justice system has been a passion of mine for years and has driven my decisions to attend law school, train as a mediator, and ultimately, join RSI’s team.
Advocates for ATJ seek to make our civil legal system more accessible by reducing barriers to people exercising their legal rights. The Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative summarizes three ways the ATJ community often seeks to accomplish this goal: “Advanc[ing] new statutory, policy, and practice changes that support development of quality indigent defense and civil legal aid delivery systems at the state and federal level; Promot[ing] less lawyer-intensive and court-intensive solutions to legal problems; and Expand[ing] research on innovative strategies to close the gap between the need for, and the availability of, quality legal assistance.” The movement for greater access to justice, which has grown as state commissions have sprung up all over the country to examine these issues, has gained increased attention with the passage in July 2015 of a joint resolution from the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators in “support [of] the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.”
Richard Zorza, a national leader on ATJ issues, responded to the resolution by calling for a definition of “100% access.” Accompanying this call was his first draft attempting to define the term, which begins: “A state is providing 100% access to justice in its courts and dispute resolution institutions when available justice services are such that any individual who either might gain by seeking the assistance of an institution to protect their significant interests, or who might gain from assistance in preventing another to use the institution to impinge on their interests, is sufficiently informed about such services to be able decide whether they wish to seek such services, to be able to take the steps required to obtain them if they choose, and can in fact obtain such services if sought” (emphasis added).
What an exciting notion. ADR as part of ATJ!
By specifically calling for access to justice in “dispute resolution institutions,” Zorza has invited input from organizations like RSI in developing an understanding of what access to ADR looks like, how it can be achieved, and how it relates to the overall concept of ATJ. We have long understood the potential ADR has as a tool for underrepresented parties, and are beyond thrilled to see other stakeholders in the justice community make that tool a greater priority.
Over the course of my next three blog posts, I will respond to this invitation by sharing examples of how we are currently using our expertise in dispute system design to improve access to justice in the foreclosure mediation programs we administer. Each of these posts will serve as a portrait of how to apply principles of careful dispute system design to promote access to justice through ADR. I welcome your comments on how ADR enables justice and hope to utilize your experiences as a way of framing this conversation.