Biden Champions Legal Aid in Latest Raft of Justice Reforms

The president signed a memo Tuesday that aims to expand court access for Americans living in poverty, among other initiatives.

En route to the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Mich., by way of to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., President Joe Biden waves Tuesday as he walks toward Marine One on the Ellipse at the White House. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Tallying up some the challenges that low-income people have historically faced while trying to get a fair trial, President Joe Biden signed a memo late Tuesday to expand access to civil legal aid and public defenders. 

“According to a 2017 study by the Legal Services Corportation, low-income Americans receive inadequate or no professional legal assistance with regard to over 80 percent of the civil legal problems they face in a given year,” the memo states. “At the same time, in the criminal legal system, those who cannot afford private counsel often receive a lower-quality defense because public defender caseloads are overburdened.”

These inequities have only been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. Though most courts and legal providers were able to provide remote services, the lack of in-person operations came at a cost for clients lacking the resources or technology for such alternatives.

Biden’s executive action comes weeks after the Justice Department launched probes into the Louisville and Minneapolis police departments, following their involvement in high-profile police killings of Black Americans.  While the Biden administration has touted its focus on advancing racial justice, the executive action announced Tuesday has Obama-era roots.

It was back in 2016 that the Justice Department launched its Office for Access to Justice, creating an apparatus to make the legal system more accessible, fair, and efficient.  

Biden’s memorandum will give Attorney General Merrick Garland four months to expand the agency’s access to justice work.

“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,” the White House said in a fact sheet. “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.” 

Biden’s memo instructs the attorney general to expand access-to-justice initiatives, particularly criminal indigent defense, civil legal aid and pro bono legal services. After 120 days, the attorney general must submit a report to the president describing his plan, staffing, budget requirements, and a timeline for any reorganization.

Another Obama-era program that Biden’s executive action is set to revive is the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, a 2012 initiative launched to foster collaboration among federal agencies to increase employment, housing security, consumer protection and public safety. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the counsel to the president will co-chair the roundtable, which will include 24 federal agencies and offices like the Department of State and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Together, they’ll develop policy recommendations to improve access to justice in federal, state, local, tribal and international courts.

Neither the Justice Department nor the White House responded to requests for comment.

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