Georgia State College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice Introduces Public Interest, Pro Bono Student Programs
By Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Darcy Meals
“Equal justice under law” is a bedrock of the American legal system, but the experiences of lower-income civil and criminal litigants are often fundamentally different from those with financial means.
Among those differences is the ability to hire an attorney, often critical to navigating a complex legal system.
In the past year, 86 percent of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal assistance. In Georgia, there were 800,000 self-represented litigants last year. One in every 13 adults is under some form of correctional supervision in Georgia, with more than half-a-million Georgians in jail, in prison, on parole or on probation. Yet, nationwide, 80 percent of criminal defendants cannot afford an attorney. Thus, for many, “equal justice” is out of reach.
The Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University College of Law, founded in 2016, supports those working to ensure meaningful access to the courts and equal treatment in the civil and criminal justice systems, with a regional focus on the South.
At one of the largest public universities in the nation, we are positioned to become the regional hub for access-to-justice research and education. The center facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration and provides a forum for scholars, lawmakers, practitioners and the public to explore existing obstacles to access and discuss strategies for change.
Educating students about access to justice issues is critical to the center’s mission and vital to addressing unmet need. This fall, the center will introduce its Public Interest Law and Policy Certificate and student-run Pro Bono Program, both of which are designed to prepare law students to serve underrepresented populations, whether in a full-time or pro bono (without charge) capacity.
The certificate curriculum exposes students to the skills and legal knowledge necessary to work with underserved individuals, communities and interests. Certificate students complete at least 40 hours of volunteer legal service through the center’s Pro Bono Program, which pairs interested students with local legal organizations, providing an opportunity to develop relevant skills and substantive knowledge while giving back to the community. Graduating with the certificate signals to prospective employers the student has a commitment to public interest work, making students from the College of Law more competitive for public interest positions.
The certificate, the Pro Bono Program and the Center for Access to Justice’s broader mission reflect Georgia State’s commitment to public service and underscore lawyers’ responsibility to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay. As the justice gap widens, the Center for Access to Justice is training the next generation of lawyers to serve the public interest, empowering students to identify and eliminate barriers to equal justice.