Menendez, Booker, Colleagues Question AG Sessions on Closing of Attorney Access Office

Menendez, Booker, Colleagues Question AG Sessions on Closing of Attorney Access Office

15 Senators send seven questions to DOJ after AG Sessions apparently closed the Office for Access to Justice, formed in 2010 by Obama Administration to help impoverished Americans access legal resources

   

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-N.J.), led 13 of their colleagues in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding answers as to why the Justice Department appears to have closed the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ) when in more than 75 percent of all civil trial cases in the United States, at least one litigant does not have a lawyer. The senators also questioned whether Congressional leaders had even been notified of the office’s closing, as required by law.

“Huge swaths of the American public are unable to access an attorney due to lack of resources,” the senators wrote. ‘The Department of Justice’s own website states that the ATJ’s mission “is to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.’ It is unfortunate that you apparently do not share these laudable goals.”

The Office for Access to Justice was established in 2010 by Attorney General Eric Holder in order to help low-income Americans in in civil, criminal and tribal courts access the legal resources that are so far out of reach for many. According to the Justice Department website, “ATJ staff work within the Department of Justice, across federal agencies, and with state, local, and tribal justice system stakeholders to increase access to counsel and legal assistance and to improve the justice delivery systems that serve people who are unable to afford lawyers.”

Joining Menendez and Booker in sending the letter were Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Angus King (I-Me.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

The letter can be found here and below.

Dear Attorney General Sessions:

We write to express our strong opposition to reports of your decision to sideline and effectively close the Office for Access to Justice (“ATJ”) that is dedicated to promoting accessibility, ensuring fairness and increasing efficiency in our justice system.[1] Even more troubling is your apparent effort to circumvent Congress by moving resources away from ATJ without officially closing it as required under law.[2]

When former Attorney General Eric Holder formed the Office for Access to Justice in 2010, he did so with the noble and much-needed goal of improving legal resources for indigent litigants in civil, criminal and tribal courts. The Department of Justice’s own website states that the ATJ’s mission “is to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.”[3] It is unfortunate that you apparently do not share these laudable goals.

Huge swaths of the American public are unable to access an attorney due to lack of resources. In fact, in more than three-fourths of all civil trial cases in the United States, at least one litigant does not have a lawyer.[4] Many Americans do not even make it to court. Without legal counsel, Americans may be unaware of their legal rights.[5] This is especially burdensome in the areas of housing law, family law, and consumer law and the poor pay the biggest price. According to Legal Services Corporation’s 2017 report The Justice Gap, “of the estimated 1.7 million civil legal problems for which low-income Americans seek LSC-funded legal aid, between 1.0-1.2 million (62%-72%) received inadequate or no legal assistance.”[6] In other words, for every 100 legal problems for clients  seeking assistance from Legal Services Corporation programs, between 62 and 72 of the legal problems are unable to receive guidance from an attorney due to lack of resources.[7] Given these jarring statistics, it is deeply troubling that you would seek to quietly marginalize ATJ. To that end we seek answers to the following questions:

1)    Is the Office for Access to Justice open?

  1. If the Office is open, how much money previously allocated to the ATJ has been reallocated?
  2. If the Office is closed, please provide the official notification to Congress.
  3. If the office is closed, did you reach out to  Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley or Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein or their staffs prior to effectively closing the office?

2)    Who is the Acting Director for the Office for Access to Justice?

3)    How many staffers currently work for the Office for Access to Justice?

4)    Please provide documentation outlining the Office for Access to Justice’s current policy, recent accomplishments and program initiatives.

We look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely,

###



[1] Katie Benner, Justice Dept. Office to make Legal Aid More Accessible Is Quietly Closed, N.Y. Times, Feb. 1, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/us/politics/office-of-access-to-justice-department-closed.html.

[2]  Pub. L. No. 96-132, § 8, 93 Stat 1040, 1046 (1979)

[3] U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Access to Justice, https://www.justice.gov/atj.

[4] Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, Making Justice Equal, Center for American Progress (Dec. 8, 2016), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2016/12/08/294479/making-justice-equal/.

[5] Id.

[7] Id