An order signed by President Biden this past week seeking to make legal representation more attainable has advocates hopeful it could improve access to civil courts — including for those facing eviction or immigration penalties.
The order, signed by Biden on Tuesday, directs the Department of Justice (DOJ) to devise a plan for expanding access not just to public defenders but also to the civil court system, where legal representation is not guaranteed by the government.
It’s an issue advocates say is timely since the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could lead to a surge in tenants and homeowners fighting evictions and foreclosures as well as those pushing for medical assistance.
They also see it as an opening for the Biden administration to require access to an attorney in immigration courts — a civil court setting where migrants can face life-altering outcomes such as deportation.
Biden’s order gives Attorney General Merrick Garland 120 days to craft a plan, along with a budget and staffing, to expand access to legal representation for both criminal and civil cases.
“It’s somewhat amorphous to say, ‘Go study access to justice,’ but we’re coming off of four years where no one would even think to utter those words,” said Jonathan Rapping, founder of Gideon’s Promise, a nonprofit public defender organization.
The order also reestablishes the DOJ Office for Access to Justice, which was eliminated by the Trump administration, and revives the White House’s Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable after four years of dormancy.
The Biden administration has touted the order as a way to “reinvigorate the federal government’s role in advancing access to justice.”
“Timely and affordable access to the legal system can make all the difference in a person’s life—including by keeping an individual out of poverty, keeping an individual in his or her home, helping an unaccompanied child seek asylum, helping someone fight a consumer scam, or ensuring that an individual charged with a crime can mount a strong defense and receive a fair trial,” the White House said in a statement.