Jo-Ann Wallace On The 'Tipping Point' For Civil Justice Reform

By RJ Vogt | June 30, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

When Jo-Ann Wallace addressed the annual Equal Justice Conference this year in Louisville, Kentucky, she told an audience of 1,100 court and legal aid staff, attorneys, public defenders and researchers that the moment was "a historic tipping point for change in civil justice and civil legal aid."

Jo-Ann Wallace, president and CEO of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, says civil justice reform is gaining momentum.

The May conference co-hosted by the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association and the American Bar Association is the largest convening of state access to justice commissions and legal aid groups in the country, and this year's attendance was the largest ever.

As president and CEO, Wallace oversees America's oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to delivering legal services to those who cannot afford counsel. The post gives her unique perspective on efforts to make the justice system more accessible to all, especially those least able equipped to handle their civil legal problems.

Having previously served as the director of Washington, D.C.'s Public Defender Service from 1994 to 2000, Wallace also has experience on the criminal side, which has seen increasing momentum for reform.

She sat down with Law360 during the conference to talk about how civil legal aid reform efforts can take cues from similar efforts in the criminal system, as well as the role corporate pro bono efforts and federal agencies can play in solving the access to justice crisis.

What does the record size of this years EJC conference say about the world of legal aid?

This moment is a tipping point for a change in civil justice, a change in legal aid that is going to be historic.

In the future we'll look at this moment as a time that was critically important in sort of bringing the pieces together for catapulting the movement. This conference is a reflection of that, and it plants the seeds for the next steps toward justice for all.

You've written about the difference between criminal and civil justice reform. How do you see one versus the other?

Activism is created both intentionally and accidentally, usually in combination.

On the criminal side, the advent of technology — smartphones and social media for example — has made people able to capture things that those in the justice system know happen every day.

It's now becoming very public. Obviously the interactions police officers on the criminal side have really captured the public attention and sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, and that's combined with other grassroots activism and criminal justice professionals who were already working on these issues inside the system.

Together it has made the criminal justice reform movement a little more public and helped it gain a lot of steam.

What about the civil side?

There's great momentum and steam there too. But it hasn't been the same sort of activism that has brought it into the limelight.

On a more micro level, things happen in the news on a daily basis that help us tell the story of civil legal aid. But in terms of something that has become a sort of coordinated public — very public — movement ... that hasn't happened.

There is a momentum and conversation already going on around the intersection between civil and criminal justice, however. So one of the things that can change is if we, the civil justice movement, can capitalize on the visibility that the criminal justice reform efforts have achieved, in a very real and legitimate way.

How do the two justice systems interact?

If you talk about over-incarceration, for example, what civil legal aid does is disrupt that pipeline into the criminal justice system.

It provides the lifeline that people need, not to get caught up in the criminal justice system by helping people stay in their homes, keep their employment — the things that are really attendant to poverty and can often lead one into that criminal justice pipeline.

So the civil legal aid work can disrupt that pipeline on the front end. On the back end, a lot of reentry work is expungement and other things often by the advocates on the civil side, not on the criminal side.

So if you think about the justice system in terms of people's lives, as opposed to how the courts define it as very separate, it makes sense that we could start talking about this in a more integrated fashion that could also raise the visibility on the civil side.

What will it take for corporate pro bono efforts to reach the level of law firms?

Corporations are stepping up their game, as law firms have, in a significant way, it's just they started later. I do believe that the same trajectory that the large law firms have taken is possible.

So timing is one factor, but it is becoming more and more an expected part of corporate social responsibility. There's more to do but I think they'll get there over time.

What about federal agencies — how can funding be maximized to help people meet their legal needs?

We work to educate agencies about the role of legal aid and how access to counsel can help them maximize their ability to achieve their respective agency goals.

For example, if the goal is helping veterans, then it's essential to demonstrate how legal aid helps veterans access benefits or deal with other issues they have.

In that way legal aid and legal aid advocacy is an important part of the human services network. It serves the same vulnerable communities that many agencies try to serve.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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