New Access to Justice Class Helps Students Make Changes to Civil Law
Assistant government professor Alyx Mark’s prospective law students arrived at her new service-learning class with a typical set of assumptions about how American courts work: and people with legal problems tend to solve them.
However, most of an individual’s interactions with the law take place through small civil actions – lawsuits, traffic courts, and evictions, for example. For many people who live in low-income neighborhoods, not only is it difficult to find legal help, but when they access the law, often representing themselves in court, it could make their problem worse. .
Thanks to Mark’s new Access to Justice course, offered last spring and scheduled every two years, Wesleyan students had a new perspective and a chance to help implement real change. âWesleyan has a lot to offer the local community, as well as globally. We have these enterprising, enthusiastic, sharp students who want to do good things in the world. So it’s not difficult to go to a community partner and say, âDo you want a team of researchers to help you solve this problem? âSaid Mark.
After a year of planning, Mark partnered with a civil justice funder, a national civil justice advocacy organization, and a local legal services provider to provide students with hands-on opportunities to address systemic issues. Mark also recruited a subject matter expert, Zach Zarnow of the National Center for State Courts, to provide students with a practitioner’s perspective at their weekly meetings. Mark recently published his thoughts on the project in ABA Journal.
âCommunity partners explained what they needed, such as a wish list of different types of projects that will help them move their work forward. The good thing about the projects was that they all required a different set of research skills, âsaid Mark. âThe community partners loved talking to the students.
For example, a group of students helped a granting agency collect data that would allow it to award more targeted grants, helping them better understand their impact.
Another project done for a legal aid provider has helped alleviate “legal deserts” in Connecticut. As is the case with food or books, many disadvantaged neighborhoods do not have access to free legal representation.
Mark’s students worked with Wesleyan geo-mapping experts to create a map of the state that displayed all the places where legal services and information are available, including law firms, courts, centers communities and libraries, in addition to demographic information from the census. âThey layered all of these things together to make predictions about where the legal service provider might target resources to people who might not be served well,â said Mark.
Mark’s overall goal is to show his students the real interaction between ordinary citizens and legal officials. How are people who represent themselves in court treated? Are people getting the help they need? Is there a way for people to avoid the courts while still having their legal problem resolved? “How far upstream can we deal with a potential problem so that it never has to enter a courthouse?” Marc asked. The answers are complicated and justice, for many, can be elusive.
Mark has given his students what appears to be a straightforward task: to seek relief from court fees in various jurisdictions across the country. Between outdated websites and confusing language – some places do not refer to a “fee waiver” as such, using obscure terminology for what should be a straightforward proposition – it is difficult for someone faced with financial problems of finding this remedy.
In short, the law works for some people and not for others. As Mark said, courts are places designed by lawyers for lawyers to use. Real legal reform will require people from disciplines other than law to be part of the conversation. âWe have to really think critically about how these systems are built,â Mark said.
Mark said the student engagement in the course was inspiring. Through in-depth discussions that challenged the worldviews of all participants and presentations by expert speakers offering their unique perspectives, Mark’s class was motivated to help implement change that can benefit everyone. . âIt was a dream. I couldn’t wait to be in the room with them and hear them,â Mark said.