Biden seeks to expand access to legal counsel and courts for vulnerable citizens

President Joe Biden

By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire Senior
National Correspondent

President Joe Biden directed the U.S. Attorney General to submit a plan within four months to expand the Department of Justice’s access to justice work.

Biden also announced that he and Vice President Kamala Harris would re-establish the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable to prioritize civil legal aid and expand access to federal programs.

The directives are part of the administration’s efforts to expand access to legal representation and the courts.

“As President Biden knows from his experience as a public defender, timely and affordable access to the legal system can make all the difference in a person’s life – including by keeping an individual out of poverty, keeping an individual in his or her home, helping an unaccompanied child seek asylum, helping someone fight a consumer scam, or ensuring that an individual charged with a crime can mount a strong defense and receive a fair trial,” White House officials wrote in a Fact Sheet.

“But low-income people have long struggled to secure quality access to the legal system. Those challenges have only increased during the public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the administration noted.

It added: “At the same time, civil legal aid providers and public defenders have been under-resourced, understaffed, and unable to reach some of the people in greatest need of their services.”

During the prior administration, the Department of Justice’s access to justice work, formally launched as an initiative in 2010, was effectively shuttered.

According to a memorandum, to restore the Department of Justice’s leadership in this area, President Biden is directing Attorney General Merritt Garland to submit a report to the President within 120 days that outlines the Department’s plan to expand its access to justice work.

The President ordered the Justice Department to start this work immediately.

The administration also said it is re-committing to the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable mission, which was initially established in 2015 to raise federal agencies’ awareness of how civil legal aid could increase employment, family stability, housing security, consumer protection, and public safety.

According to the Fact Sheet, the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable will be co-chaired by the Attorney General and the Counsel to the President or their designees.

It will convene federal agencies to identify ways to address some of the most pressing legal services challenges that we face today—including those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The federal government has a critical role to play in expanding access to the nation’s legal system and supporting the work of civil legal aid providers and public defenders,” administration officials said.

“President Biden’s executive action today will reinvigorate the federal government’s role in advancing access to justice and help ensure that the administration’s policies and recovery efforts can reach as many individuals as possible.”

The Presidential memorandum is the Biden-Harris administration’s latest action to protect vulnerable Americans, reform the justice system, and advance racial equity, the White House said.

On his first day in office, they noted that Biden issued an executive order establishing a government-wide initiative to put equity at the heart of each agency’s priorities and management plan.

“His discretionary budget request called for $1.5 billion in funding for grants to strengthen state and local criminal justice systems, including by investing in public defenders. Improving access to counsel in civil and criminal proceedings builds on each of these efforts,” the White House concluded.

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