Calculating the Justice Gap in Your Community

By Joe Lawson, LISP-SIS

Regardless of your library setting, you will need to justify your budget occasionally. For LISP libraries, that may mean specifically justifying services to the public. Recent trends among administrators and elected officials suggest that a data-driven approach to budget justification can lead to better outcomes for law libraries and their patrons. So, what data can we provide to justify services to the public?

One measure we can calculate on a local level is the Minimum Justice Gap (MJG). Combining factors derived from census data and metrics suggested by the 2017 Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Justice Gap Report can provide a reasonable estimate of the justice gap for individuals with household income below the federal poverty line. Here’s the formula:

Minimum Justice Gap Formula

N x P x L x U = Minimum Justice Gap for Service Area

where

N = Total Population of Service Area (e.g. county)  |  P = Poverty Rate of Service Area

L = Percentage of Individuals Living in Poverty with a Legal Need

U = Percentage of Individuals Living in Poverty Whose Legal Need Goes Unmet

For example, the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts page for Harris County, Texas lists the population as 4,713,325 people as of 2019 and the poverty rate as 15%. The 2017 LSC Justice Gap Report suggests that 71% of individuals living in poverty have at least one civil legal need each year and 86% of those needs go unmet. Plugging the numbers into the MJG formula suggests that 706,999 Harris County residents live in poverty (i.e. 4,713,325 x 15%), of whom 501,969 have a civil legal need (i.e. 706,999 x 71%), and 431,693 people living in poverty in Harris County will have an unmet legal need this year (i.e. 501,969 x 86%). Therefore, at least 431,693 people are at risk of falling through the Justice Gap in Harris County, Texas, and law library services for the public are needed to help bridge the gap.

It is important to note that this is not a complete picture of the Justice Gap, since individuals with incomes at more than the federal poverty guidelines may still qualify for legal aid or may be unable to afford an attorney. However, data that provides a clear picture of the number people living above the poverty line who are falling through the Justice Gap can be elusive. As such, estimating the minimum number of marginalized members of our communities who benefit from the valuable services public law libraries offer is the best data-driven approach to demonstrating the scope of the problem our institutions are working to solve.

About the author: Joe Lawson is Deputy Director of the Harris County Robert W. Hainsworth Law Library.

Access to Justice Technology Spotlight: ABA Free Legal Answers

By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS

Many of us are aware of the 2017 Legal Services Corporation Justice Gap Report which noted the following key finding: 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.  To help narrow the justice gap, the American Bar Association created Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal clinic, comprised of existing and expanded state projects.  Free Legal Answers is an online portal that allows low-income individuals to ask civil legal questions of volunteer attorneys.  It also allows lawyers during COVID times to provide pro-bono services when they are needed most. 

Created in 2016, ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA) is now available in 38 states with 7 more committed to participate in the future.  As of December 2020, over 140,757 civil legal questions have been submitted from individuals with limited income or inability to access legal services due to geographic and transportation issues.  While most questions are family law issues, ABA FLA also receives questions covering a variety of situations, including housing, consumer, and health issues.  Currently, over 8,000 attorneys are registered to provide pro bono legal advice through the portal.

When asked in February about the impact the pandemic has had on ABA FLA, ABA President Patricia Lee Refo responded, “ABA Free Legal Answers has answered 145,000 questions since its inception, underscoring the need for free and affordable civil legal services. Earlier this year, we expanded its reach to veterans, immigrants, and asylum seekers, who all have legal problems that can’t be solved easily without a lawyer’s help. Coupled with the legal pressures presented by the pandemic, we expect to see continuation of the steady increase in both the number of inquiries and volunteer lawyers who have generously given their time and talents.”

To help in this uncertain time, many states have increased the questions per user limit as well as the income threshold, so that attorneys can reach more people.  ABA FLA continues to grow with the roll out of a federal site which began tackling immigration and veterans’ questions in January 2021. 

For more information, visit https://www.americanbar.org/groups/probono_public_service/projects_awards/free-legal-answers/

About the author:  Jessica Almeida is a Public Services Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth, MA.  She is currently the co-editor of the LISP/SR Blog. 

References

“ABA Free Legal Answers Reaches Milestone with 100,000 Inquiries since Launch.” American Bar Association, March 17, 2020. https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2020/03/aba-free-legal-answers-reaches-milestone-with-100-000-inquiries-/ .

 Albukerk, Tali K. “‘ABA Free Legal Answers’ Connects Clients and Pro Bono Attorneys Online.” Business Law Today from ABA, April 13, 2020. https://businesslawtoday.org/2020/04/aba-free-legal-answers-connects-clients-pro-bono-attorneys-online/ .

“Justice Gap Report.” LSC, 2017. https://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report .

Robert, Amanda. “Working from Home? ABA Free Legal Answers Offers pro Bono Opportunities.” ABA Journal, March 17, 2020. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/working-from-home-aba-free-legal-answers-offers-pro-bono-opportunities .