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Center for Access to Justice Shines Light on Problems in the South

Access to Justice Issue“The experience of lower-income civil and criminal litigants is often fundamentally different from those with financial means,” said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, assistant professor of law and faculty director of Georgia State Law’s Center for Access to Justice.

Lucas created the center to establish a regional and national base for the study of problems relating to access to justice for lower-income individuals. The need for such a center in the Southeast is “critical,” Lucas said.

Center for Access
to Justice

  • Lauren Sudeall Lucas graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and received her B.A. with distinction from Yale University. She serves on the Southern Center’s board of directors, the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid & Indigent Defendants, the Indigent Defense Committee of the State Bar of Georgia and the board of advisors for the Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law School. She also serves as chair of the AALS Section on Constitutional Law.
  • Darcy Meals  received an A.B. in public policy from Brown University and her J.D. from UCLA School of Law. Prior to joining Georgia State Law, Meals was an attorney at O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, D.C., where she maintained an active pro bono practice, representing clients in deportation proceedings and a group of federal inmates seeking accommodation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. She has written articles on immigration law and co-wrote an amicus brief in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that was cited twice in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concurring opinion.
  • On March 2, the Center for Access to Justice will welcome Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, who will deliver the 59th Henry J. Miller Lecture at Georgia State University. R.S.V.P.s are required for the lecture.
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She became familiar with the obstacles indigent clients often face while a student at Harvard Law School engaging with such issues through her classroom, clinical and work experiences. A summer internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta further opened her eyes to how wealth and resources affect access to justice, especially in the South. She returned to the Southern Center in 2007 as a Soros Justice Fellow and was later hired as a staff attorney. She joined the Georgia State Law faculty in 2012.

One of the primary reasons Lucas came to Georgia to practice law was the amount of unaddressed need in the region. Compared to other regions in the U.S., the South has consistently had a higher rate of incarceration, and the death penalty is more prevalent. According to sentencingproject.org, the imprisonment rate in Georgia is 519 per 100,000 residents, making it the ninth highest in the nation. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest in the nation at 867 per 100,000. A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report noted that 1 in 13 adults were under some form of correctional supervision in Georgia — in jail or prison or on parole or probation — compared to the national average of 1 in 36. As in many states across the country, indigent defense systems are often underfunded and underresourced; many Southern states also do not provide representation post-conviction.

While Lucas’ background is primarily in the realm of criminal justice, the center will also bring attention to underserved needs within the civil justice system. In Georgia, for example, a 2009 report showed that fewer than 10 percent of low-income individuals seeking help with civil legal needs were able to obtain assistance from an attorney. Many more low and middle-income Georgians are unaware that their problems are legal ones that could be solved if they were able to receive such assistance.

“The South seems to have — or perhaps it has devoted — fewer resources to resolve these problems,” Lucas said. “And there are not many places in the region where people working on access to justice issues can convene to discuss strategies for solving these problems.”

The center aims to fill that void by bringing together scholars, practitioners, law and policy makers and academics from across different disciplines to explore those problems and work together to develop solutions.

Atlanta — as the capital of both the state and the region — and Georgia State University, with its focus on community engagement with those outside of academia and its encouragement of interdisciplinary teamwork, is an ideal fit for the center, Lucas said.

Filling the gaps in research and data is also part of the center’s mission.

“Current and accurate data are essential to figuring out what the most effective solutions may be,” Lucas said.

Research generated by affiliated faculty and graduate students will help identify and better understand the difficulties lower-income individuals face in attempting to navigate the justice system. That research will inform whether and how those difficulties might be addressed. For example, can non-attorneys provide assistance in legal matters? Are there ways to use technology to reach more people? What’s the best way to implement new, innovative systems? How can public defenders provide more effective representation?

The data will help illuminate how law, policy or other systemic changes can “ensure that the justice system functions fairly and effectively for lower-income individuals,” Lucas said.

Educating law students about access issues, and engaging them in such work, will also play a significant role in building a community that will effect change.

“The center aims to create a supportive environment for students to think about these issues, to contribute to access to justice through public interest and pro bono work and to engage with those practicing in the field,” said Darcy Meals, assistant director of the center. Lucas added, “When students go into practice, our hope is that they will continue to be mindful of these issues and incorporate access to justice ideals into their own work.”

 

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