ABF Access to Justice Initiative hosts research conference with law school

The American Bar Foundation (ABF) Access to Justice Research Initiative is a dynamic hub for innovative empirical research and programs that bridge the divide between access to civil justice scholarship and practice in the United States and around the world.

In their effort to critically examine how empirical research might provide answers to the access to civil justice crisis, the Access to Justice Research Initiative and Wayne State University Law School co-hosted a conference on May 8 titled “Emerging Insights from Access to Justice Research: Translating Ideas into Action” at Wayne Law’s campus in Detroit. This conference featured presentations from 14 past and current ABF/JPB Foundation Access to Justice Scholars producing pathbreaking research in the field of access to justice.

The conference began with opening remarks from Wayne Law Dean and Professor of Law Richard Bierschbach and Rebecca Sandefur, ABF Faculty Fellow and professor and director of the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University.
Harold D. Pope, ABF Board member and Sustaining Life Fellow, concluded the opening remarks with an introduction to the ABF and its long history of work in this field. He stated, “Access to justice research is an important theme across the ABF’s work, and we want to thank the Access to Justice Research Initiative team for fostering the next generation of scholars in the field.”

—Session 1: Research-Practice Partnerships

Panelists presented research rooted in partnerships with legal aid organizations. Nikole Nelson, founding CEO of Frontline Justice and former executive director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation, served as a respondent to the research presentations, and Matthew Burnett, senior program officer for the Access to Justice Research Initiative, moderated the panel. Margaret Hagan (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Establishing Quality Benchmarks for Legal Help Q&A,” a research project that uses a quality auditing system to assess the effectiveness of legal aid providers’ assistance.

Claire Johnson Raba (2023-24 Access to Justice Scholar) presented “Beyond Default Judgements: Solving the Engagement Gap for Unrepresented Litigants in Debt Collection Lawsuits.” Raba is studying the reasons for non-response to debt collection lawsuits and how legal aid services can better serve defendants in these cases. Kirsten Matoy Carlson (2023-24 Access to Justice Scholar) presented “Practitioner Initiated Research: Michigan Indian Legal Services,” which studies a Michigan-based legal service organization’s efforts to address the disparity between Native American client needs and traditional legal aid outcomes measurement. Neel U. Sukhatme (2023-24 Access to Justice Scholar) presented “Legal Aid in the Eviction Context.”

—Session 2: Exploring the Nexus of Civil and Criminal Law

 Panelists explored topics at the intersection of civil and criminal law. The panel was moderated by Robin Bartram, ABF Affiliated Scholar, and Ed Wunch, criminal justice debt attorney at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. Brittany Friedman (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Policy Reform and the Case of Prison Pay-to-Stay,” which examines the state laws that permit inmate charges for room and board, medical, and other fees. Sarah E. Lageson (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Algorithmic Injustice and the Civil/Criminal Nexus,” which considers the role of criminal record data in background checks, and the ways that laws govern the quality of background checks from state and private companies. Karin D. Martin (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Voters in Jail: Access to Justice and the Right to Vote Behind Bars,” a research project that explores voting disenfranchisement of incarcerated individuals and ongoing efforts in Washington State to expand access to voting for people in county jails. Maureen Waller (2023-24 Access to Justice Scholar) presented her research on economic and racial disparities in driver’s license suspensions utilizing New York DMV data.

—Session 3: Data for Achieving Better Justice Outcomes

Panelists presented research projects where data plays a key role in justice outcomes in the third session of the day. Moderated by Nicole Summers, ABF Affiliated Scholar, the session featured commentary from Holly Stevens, chief data officer at the Legal Services Corporation. Chiara Galli (2023-24 Access to Justice Scholar) presented “Deporting Children: Case Outcomes for Unaccompanied Minors Facing Removal Proceedings in U.S. Immigration Court,” which examines legal representation, detention conditions, and other factors influencing outcomes for unaccompanied minors arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border in removal proceedings.Rebecca Johnson (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Legal Oversight Deserts: The Case of Parents and Students with Disabilities,” in which she studies due process claims filed by the parents of students with disabilities against school districts in state-level administrative hearing systems. Amy Widman (2024-25 Access to Justice Scholar) previewed her forthcoming research project, which will study models for nonlawyer representation and other forms of assistance in federal agency decision-making processes.

—Session 4: Housing and Environmental Justice

Panelists explored housing and environmental justice and its intersections with access to justice. Rebecca Sandefur served as the moderator, and David Neumeyer, executive director of the Virginia Legal Aid Society, offered commentary on the presentations.
Robin Bartram (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Housing and the Environment,” which introduced the topic of her new book project, which considers housing as a site of environmental risk and regulation beyond the context of disasters and into everyday dilapidation and displacement in New Orleans and Chicago. Alyse Bertenthal (2024-25 Access to Justice Scholar) presented “Access to Environmental Justice,” which foreshadowed her emerging research into specialized environmental courts as a potential way to address environmental injustices. Nicole Summers (ABF Affiliated Scholar) presented “Outcomes in Eviction Court,” where she highlights the lack of reliable data around forced tenant moves resulting from eviction filings.

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