As the cost of legal services and the complexity of legal procedures have grown, America’s civil “justice gap” has widened. In such areas as evictions, child support, custody, domestic violence, foreclosures, public benefits, consumer debt, and immigration, vast numbers of Americans now navigate the legal system pro se — frequently against companies and agencies that do have lawyers. In Philadelphia Municipal Court, for example, a recent study showed that about 80% of landlords are represented, compared to about 7% of tenants.
In the seminar portion of the clinic, students learn about the nature and extent of the civil justice gap, the reasons it exists, the problems it causes, and the sorts of approaches that can help to address it. Seminar topics include constitutional and statutory rights to counsel; the role of legal aid and pro bono; “unbundled” representation; new roles for non-lawyer professionals, volunteers, and community partners; court-based help centers; online forms and other innovative uses of technology; ethical issues; and more.
In the project portion of the clinic, students research one or more efforts aimed at promoting greater access to justice. Typically, these projects are conducted in collaboration with organizations such as legal non-profits, bar associations, and courts, that are in some way involved in the problem of providing greater access to justice for low-income individuals. Projects involve gathering information; legal research; drafting of informational materials and reports; and engaging in policy advocacy. The focus is primarily on systemic issues rather than individual representation, although the clinic takes on individual clients in some circumstances.
Students in the clinic gain practical skills and experience in collaborating with lawyers in legal nonprofits and other agencies, as well as with student colleagues; in understanding how administrative agencies and courts actually operate, and how people of limited means experience our civil justice system; in identifying barriers to justice and developing strategies for change; and in written and oral advocacy.
Legal research and analysis
Systems research, including interviewing of stakeholders and data-gathering
Systemic advocacy skills (e.g., problem identification, solution development, legal and policy advocacy)
Drafting of reports and other advocacy documents
Collaboration with legal and community organizations clients
Limited individual representation depending on project
The clinic is a 4-credit graded course, consisting of a weekly seminar and extensive small-group work. Enrollment is by application.
- Helping families get the legal information they need
- Self-help centers in PA courts benefit litigants, judges, and court staff
- Students discuss their work on “Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments”
- New report identifies practical steps courts can take to reduce default judgments in debt cases
- Could “qualified legal advocates” help Pennsylvanians with their legal issues?
- Navigators could help pro se defendants in debt-collection court
- A user-friendly court web site for Philadelphia
- Relieving the legal burdens on unrepresented defendants in debt-collection cases
- Consumer debt and access to justice
- Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court