Good news from the White House: last week President Obama formally established, via Presidential Memorandum, the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR). LAIR had been functioning for several months as a less formal program. LAIR’s mission, generally, is 1) promoting best practices in how federal agencies may work with/through civil legal aid providers to achieve federal anti-poverty goals, and 2) allowing the myriad federal agencies which do anti-poverty work to efficiently talk to one another about legal aid’s role.
Key points, both in terms of the policy goals which drove LAIR’s creation, and how LAIR is to function:
- POLICY: “Equal access to justice helps individuals and families receive health services, housing, education, and employment; enhances family stability and public safety; and secures the public’s faith in the American justice system. Equal access to justice also advances the missions of an array of Federal programs, particularly those designed to lift Americans out of poverty or to keep them securely in the middle class.”
- POLICY: “By encouraging Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs, the Federal Government can enhance access to justice in our communities.” This is an important point. Between the programmatic work that federal entities perform on anti-poverty efforts, and the grant funds they distribute to non-government entities, the federal government – as a whole – is a key anti-poverty actor. The devil is in the words “as a whole.” Different federal entities don’t always succeed in coordinating their efforts. So LAIR, as a communication conduit, can improve efficiency while keeping focused on legal aid’s role.
- FUNCTION: “The Attorney General and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, or their designees, shall serve as the Co-Chairs of LAIR.” In addition to DOJ, 18 other federal agencies/entities will appoint a LAIR representative. On top of that, LAIR “shall invite the participation” of the Legal Services Corporation and some other federal entities.
- FUNCTION: The DOJ’s Access to Justice Initiative will staff LAIR. Indeed LAIR had started as a DOJ/ATJ and White House collaboration in the first place, and in April 2014 LAIR rolled out an online Toolkit which “identif[ies] for both legal service providers and Federal agencies the program areas where [legal aid’s] work can add the most value, including by listing examples from across the Federal Government of grants and activities that engage civil legal aid.”
- FUNCTION: LAIR’s specific mission charges are in Section 4 of the Memorandum. They include “advanc[ing] relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis of civil legal aid and indigent defense.” This of course doesn’t say the feds will fund research, but one can hope that with the scale/scope of envisioned federal LAIR involvement, some of the federal entities with research expertise could play a role furthering efforts to identify the most effective ways to use legal aid and other ATJ tools to achieve broader-based access to civil justice.