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St. John’s Hosts Law School Access to Justice Conference

Hon. Janet DiFiore '81, New York's Chief Judge, addresses Law School Access to Justice Conference attendees
Monday, May 22, 2017

On May 18, 2017, educators, attorneys, judges, and legal service providers came together at St. John’s Law for the Sixth Annual Law School Access to Justice Conference convened by the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice.

The words “Justice for all” close a pledge made across America every day. But, for millions of Americans, the same words evoke a promise that remains unfulfilled. A wide “justice gap” has left them without the civil legal services they need when facing foreclosure, cuts in public assistance, eviction, and other serious legal challenges.

During his tenure as New York’s chief judge, Hon. Jonathan Lippman declared that equal justice “requires that every human being has access to the courts and to a judicial system where the scales of justice are exquisitely balanced.” And he devoted much of his time and energy as the head of the state judiciary to addressing the crisis in civil representation faced by low-income New Yorkers.

His effort included the formation of the Task Force to Expand Access to Legal Services in New York, which continues its vital work today as the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice.

Recognizing that New York’s 15 law schools are vital partners in its mission of removing barriers to justice, the Permanent Commission has convened the Law School Access to Justice Conference for the last six years to foster collaboration among law schools and legal services providers, the courts, and the bar.

This year’s conference addressed “the role of New York’s law schools in helping meet the essential civil legal needs of low income New Yorkers.” After welcome remarks from Helaine M. Barnett, the Permanent Commission’s chair, Dean Michael A. Simons shared his thoughts on the special and unique role that law schools play in expanding access to justice and in preparing students to deliver that justice.

He then introduced Hon. Janet DiFiore '81, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and the State of New York. Noting her keystone “Excellence Initiative” to improve New York’s court system, Dean Simons remarked that Judge DiFiore has devoted her entire career to serving the public good. Now, she proudly leads the judiciary of the state that has the largest budget for providing civil legal services to the poor of any state in the nation.

Acknowledging Judge Lippman’s extraordinary contributions, Judge DiFiore said that New York has become “the undisputed leader” in serving the civil legal needs of low-income residents. She also recognized the important role that law schools play in narrowing the justice gap, stating: “They shape the hearts and minds of our students” and teach them to be “part of something that is larger than themselves, and to forever perceive themselves and their profession as having a broader purpose of public service.”

The conference continued with a plenary session about how law schools can enhance access to justice and access to the democratic process for low-income New Yorkers. The panelists included former St. John’s Law Professor Janai S. Nelson, who is now Associate Director-Counsel at NAACP-LDF. One of the main themes that emerged from the plenary panel was: “there is no justice without access to justice.” Mid-morning briefings followed on a range of access to justice topics and then the participants broke into three work groups that continued through the afternoon.

St. John’s Law Professors Ann L. Goldweber and Gina M. Calabrese, who direct the Law School’s Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic and who helped to organize the conference, co-facilitated a workshop that explored models of collaboration to expand access to justice between law school clinics and local communities, legal service providers, community organizations, and courts. “The workshop was a wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas about how law schools can better serve our low-income communities, and how we can educate students in innovative ways to achieve our common goal of facilitating access to justice,” Professor Goldweber says.

The conference closed with a plenary session and reports from the work group facilitators. The conference proceedings and workshop reports will inform future access to justice initiatives in New York. As Judge DiFiore remarked, with this concerted effort, “We have good reason to be hopeful and optimistic . . . as we move forward together.”