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Durbin Questions Witnesses During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing On Closing The Civil Justice Gap

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned witnesses at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled, “Closing the Justice Gap: How to Make the Civil Justice System Accessible to All Americans.”  Today’s hearing examined the “civil justice gap,” which is the gap between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the services available to meet those needs.   

Durbin began his questions by asking Nikole Nelson, CEO of Frontline Justice and former Executive Director of the Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC), about how state law impacted the community-led model she launched to train non-lawyer “justice workers” in supporting those in need of legal services.

Ms. Nelson explained that Alaska’s permissive unauthorized practice of law statute allowed for the creation of training programs for justice workers.  However, in order to allow justice workers to be in the courtroom, ALSC secured a waiver from the Alaska Supreme Court. 

Durbin expressed to Ms. Nelson that he hopes to see more states follow the model developed by ALSC to allow justice workers into the courtroom to support those in need nationwide.

Durbin then spoke to Veronica Gonzalez, both a former Legal Aid Chicago client and now a member of the Legal Aid Chicago Board of Directors.  Durbin thanked Ms. Gonzalez for sharing herstory as a survivor of domestic violence who relied on Legal Aid Chicago to escape abuse and gain full custody of her son. 

“Listening to your story is an indication of some of the battles that are being fought every single day by people with courage, like your own, to protect yourself, your own dignity, but more importantly, your son, and to go to the lengths most of us would find unimaginable,” Durbin said. “That’s what’s at stake here.  It isn’t just a matter of who wins a lawsuit.  It’s a question of a person’s life moving forward from a situation.  I am so glad that you’re part of Legal Aid because your voice is important to bring the reality of the experience of representing people with challenges like your own.”

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

While the Sixth Amendment provides the right to counsel in criminal cases, there is no equivalent constitutional right to counsel in civil cases.  The result is a staggering gap in the ability of Americans to access the civil justice system, as shown in a Legal Services Corporation study that found low-income Americans did not receive any or enough legal support for 92 percent of the problems that substantially impacted them in the prior year.

A 2023 American Bar Association (ABA) study similarly found that millions are left struggling because they are without the necessary legal representation.  Often, these issues relate to people’s most basic needs, including housing, accessing nutrition programs, ending domestic violence, gaining education or employment, and utilizing disability services.  Extensive research demonstrates the positive impact of legal assistance.  Individuals with low incomes who receive legal assistance tend to achieve better outcomes than those without access to such assistance, with research showing that people with representation are 6.5 times more likely to win their cases than those without legal representation.