In the United States, millions of people who are poor or low-income are without legal assistance when facing a crisis such as eviction, foreclosure, domestic violence, termination of subsistence income, loss of child custody or an immigration removal proceeding. The result is a crisis in unmet legal needs that compounds existing disadvantage and disproportionately harms racial minorities, immigrants, and women.
The Human Rights Institute is engaging a range of human rights theories, strategies and forums, both international and domestic, to advance advocacy for meaningful access to civil counsel in the United States, including in immigration proceedings. The Institute is enlisting and supporting the U.S. access to justice community to deepen advocacy efforts at the U.N. and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and to translate and leverage international success into domestic litigation, administrative advocacy and policy work. This work is an outgrowth of research support we provided to the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepulveda, for her 2012 thematic report to the U.N. General Assembly on Access to Justice.
Much of our recent Access to Justice work has focused on U.N. human rights reviews. In conjunction with the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR in March 2014, the Institute drafted and submitted a coalition shadow report detailing the civil justice gap in the United States and recommending federal reforms to ensure that people who are low-income and poor have meaningful access to legal representation in cases where basic human needs are at stake, including in immigration proceedings. With our partner Northeastern University School of Law’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE), the Institute filed a similar report with the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination for its August 2014 review of U.S. compliance with the CERD. The Institute participated in the civil society delegation to both the ICCPR and CERD reviews in Geneva to raise awareness around the issue with the Committees and the U.S. government delegations and engage in wider public education around the issue.
Our efforts resulted in strong recommendations from the human rights treaty monitoring bodies. The U.N. Human Rights Committee recommended that the U.S. provide access to legal representation for immigrants and for domestic violence victims. The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination recommended that the U.S. guarantee access to legal representation in all immigration-related matters and allocate sufficient resources to ensure effective access to legal representation in civil proceedings implicating basic needs.
The Institute also engaged in advocacy around access to justice in conjunction with the second Universal Periodic Review of the United States. In its UPR advocacy, the Institute highlighted promising federal programs such as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative, and emphasized the importance of meaningful and equal access to counsel in civil cases (including immigration proceedings) for U.S. human rights compliance.
The Institute is developing models for integrating the international recommendations on access to justice into domestic litigation and advocacy. In June 2014, with our partner PHRGE, we convened U.S. access to justice experts to explore ways to strategically coordinate international and domestic advocacy efforts to advance access to justice in civil cases in the United States. In addition, the Institute, in conjunction with the Human Rights Clinic, provided significant support to the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s right to housing project, through research and drafting for a report to the Maryland judiciary on judges’ role in promoting and protecting the right to housing in Maryland’s rent courts. In December 2014, the Institute, along with PHRGE, submitted testimony on the importance of ensuring meaningful access to counsel in civil cases to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights for its hearing on the State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States. And the Institute is supporting the NYC Right to Counsel coalition, which is working to achieve a right to counsel for litigants facing eviction in New York City housing courts.
The Institute recently embarked on a new project related to access to justice and the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs, which are explicitly grounded in human rights, are to be adopted by the international community in September 2015 as an agenda for eradicating poverty around the globe. The SDGs cover access to justice, as well as gender equality, climate change, education, hunger, health, clean water and sanitation, sustainable energy, economic growth, employment, urban development, housing, inequality in and between countries, and more. In its current near-final form, Goal 16 of the SDGs calls on countries to "[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels." The Institute is working with the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) to deepen the impact of the post-2015 SDGs, and in particular Goal 16, on efforts to advance access to justice in the United States.