Can Authentic Lay Lawyering and Democratically Structured Movement Lawyering Improve Civil Access to Justice?

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International Access to Justice Forum, University of California Irvine Law School


This presentation looks beyond the traditional “access to lawyers” quandary and applies interpersonal dynamics that the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò calls “elite capture” to civil law access-to-justice problems. Based on empirical evidence drawn from participant ethnographies, interviews, and content analysis of documents produced through FOIA litigation, we present two case studies to evaluate how each approach deals with “elite capture” and impacts access to justice. The first case study, Dignidad, is an experiment in lay advocacy that trains forced migrants for accreditation thereby authorizing them to represent others in immigration proceedings, trials, and appeals. Our examination found not only that the Dignidad lay advocates are a more-than-adequate substitute for the lack of competent lawyers representing immigrants but that they also exceed lawyers in terms of raw efficacy and the provision of enhanced client autonomy. The second case study examines lawyers’ engagement in democratically structured movement lawyering designed to end the immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities (S-Comm). Anti S-Comm advocates provided lawyer legitimacy to a campaign built on loosely coupled, embedded, and highly democratic structures. We found this model provided effective and accountable representation to large groups and dampened the ill effects of elite capture. We conclude that Dignidad and the anti-S-Comm campaign represent important advances in access to justice challenges. These models provide a larger number of legal representatives and more accountable lawyers for groups of marginalized folks whose voices are not heard and interests are not adequately promoted through more traditional legal vehicles.