Access to Justice Initiative

In our local community, in our state, across the country, and throughout the world, too many people are unable to rely on the justice system to protect basic rights to keep their families together, to retain and live in their homes, to defend their savings, and to preserve even their basic physical safety and security. People face numerous barriers that prevent them from learning about their rights and obtaining a fair and impartial hearing on their claims.

A Pressing Problem

The lives of families, the integrity of communities, and ultimately the nation’s rule of law are undermined by “the justice gap”— created by the complexity of our judicial systems, the insufficient number of free civil legal aid attorneys, the lack of support for indigent defense programs and the imbalance in power and resources that increasingly defines our society. This crisis is particularly acute for marginalized and subordinated groups, such as those in racial, ethnic and religious minorities, and women, but everyone has a stake in assuring that our justice system is fair. It is a crisis that crosses the boundaries between civil and criminal justice, as the two systems are deeply intertwined. It also crosses national boundaries, as the United Nations has recognized the importance of access to justice in all countries by including it among 17 sustainable development goals adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in September 2015 for the purpose of guiding global efforts to end extreme poverty by 2030.

Finding Solutions

The Access to Justice Initiative at Fordham Law will focus the collective public service energy of the School and its community to ensure greater access to justice in the spirit of the Law School’s motto “In the service of others.”

For over a century, we have dedicated our expertise, skills, and talents to serving others. Our students graduate to become lawyers who better the lives of clients and the functioning of institutions that shape and guide our society. Our classrooms, clinics, centers and institutes serve as engines of impact. Our faculty engages with the real world and focuses on critical legal issues. Our entire community makes a difference in the world every day.

The Initiative will formally commit our network to delivering on the promise of equal justice, which lies at the core of our concerns as a service-oriented institution and is the foundational bedrock of our constitutional society. It will connect many of the School’s already existing justice programs and projects to maximize and enhance its impact. The initiative will also help to underline the centrality of the pursuit of justice to all of the learning and work that define our great School with its great tradition of service.

Three Levels of Engagement

The “justice gap” in our society is vast. Our nation’s promise of equal justice under law is too rarely fulfilled. It is the responsibility and commitment of Fordham Law as a leading institution of legal education—and as one that is grounded in the Jesuit vision of service—to work to remedy this problem. In New York alone, for example, more than two million people are unable to find lawyers as they navigate a complex system to deal with their legal problems. While ideally all litigants would have a lawyer to represent them in cases involving fundamental human needs, the reality is that many can neither afford a lawyer nor access free legal services. Our criminal justice system is plagued by inadequate funding for indigent defense, an antiquated and punitive bail system, systemic challenges in enforcement and adjudication that lead to wrongful convictions and enormous unwarranted costs for individuals, communities and our country. Fordham’s Access to Justice Initiative will attack the problem in the following ways.

Teaching

Fordham Law has a deep curriculum that enables students to obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to make an impact on the crisis in access to justice.

Fordham currently offers courses such as Poverty Law, Consumer Protection Law, Disability Law, Environmental Justice, Race and Law, Immigration Law, Juvenile Justice, and International Human Rights. The School also offers directed courses of study through the Stein Scholars Program and the Leitner Center for International Justice. And numerous other courses are central to the provision of access to justice.

In addition, Fordham Law’s expansive clinical program and its popular public service projects serve as major sources of engagement with access to justice issues. During any given semester, the Law School offers approximately 15 different clinics that serve individuals who are facing difficult legal situations and who may not otherwise have the resources for legal representation. The clinics are supervised and taught by our outstanding clinical faculty. Many of the clinics operate through the School’s own law firm, Lincoln Square Legal Services.

Additionally, the Law School will widen its instructional reach by exploring ways to engage non-lawyers in closing the justice gap and helping to expand the pipeline of students from marginalized and low income communities into the legal profession.

Direct Service

The Law School offers many curricular and extracurricular activities that provide direct services to people in need. Through Lincoln Square Legal Services, the Law School provides representation to low income clients in a wide variety of fields, including immigration, family law, consumer protection, tax, criminal defense and investor protection.

PIRC, the Public Interest Resource Center, is the hub of all public service activity at the School. PIRC’s over two-dozen public interest student groups annually fulfill, on average, more than 120,000 hours of public service work during their time at Fordham. PIRC is the place where many students are introduced to the value of public service work and from which their passion for access to justice work is intensified. 

The School’s participation in the Pro Bono Scholars Program further strengthens our justice imprint. The program, launched by Judge Lippman, allows Fordham Law students in their last year of law school to devote their last semester to performing pro bono service through an externship, clinic, or legal services provider.

Scholarship, Research + Advocacy

The justice gap is prompting communities across the country and throughout the world to consider new models for helping litigants who are unable to afford private lawyers and unsuccessful in qualifying for free civil legal representation. Through the work of David Udell’s National Center for Access to Justice, Fordham Law will situate itself more fully with policy reform initiatives that are dedicated to assuring access to our civil and criminal justice systems. The NCAJ’s projects include the Justice Index which encourages adoption of best practices for access to justice by tracking and comparing the performance of state courts in serving low income litigants. NCAJ also produces reports, hosts events, and carries out public education and public advocacy initiatives.

The Law School’s other innovative centers and institutes will continue to play an important role, as they have for decades, with their own research and advocacy. The following centers, in particular, keep access to justice issues front and center in their work.