Access to Justice Clinic

The Sheller Center’s new Access to Justice Clinic, taught by Prof. Len Rieser, will start in fall 2019.

Why the clinic?  As the costs of legal services have risen, America’s civil “justice gap” has widened. Now, in such critical areas as evictions, child support, custody, domestic violence, foreclosures, public benefits, consumer debt, and immigration, vast numbers of people of low and moderate means cannot afford legal help. Instead, they navigate the legal system pro se, often against companies and agencies that do have lawyers — and frequently with disastrous results. (In Philadelphia Municipal Court, for example, a recent study showed that about 80% of landlords are represented, compared to about 7% of tenants.)

What will you do? In this clinic, you’ll work on projects aimed at closing, or at least narrowing, the justice gap. Your work will be in collaboration with local organizations, such as legal non-profits, bar associations, and courts, that are actively seeking to improve access to justice for low-income individuals. The focus will be on systemic projects rather than individual representation.

Projects will reflect the priorities of client organizations, but will typically involve gathering information on access-to-civil-justice problems, drafting reports and recommendations, and engaging in policy advocacy. For example, a project might entail investigating how court rules designed for parties with lawyers can become an unmanageable obstacle for pro se litigants, and developing a proposal for changes in the rules. Alternatively, you might analyze ways in which non-lawyer helpers (sometimes called “navigators”) could help unrepresented litigants in preparing for their hearings, and develop a proposal for a “navigator” initiative in Philadelphia. Or you might develop an argument for the creation of a right to counsel in a certain type of proceeding, leading to a report to a legislative body or assistance to attorneys litigating a right-to-counsel claim.

What skills will you develop? You’ll gain practical skills and experience in collaborating with lawyers in legal nonprofits and other agencies, as well as with student colleagues; in understanding how administrative agencies and courts actually operate, and how people of limited means experience our judicial systems; in identifying barriers to justice and developing strategies for change; and in written and oral advocacy.

The clinic is a 4-credit graded course, consisting of a weekly seminar and small-group work.

Prof. Rieser is Program Coordinator of the Sheller Center for Social Justice, and teaches courses in Access to Justice in  Civil Matters and in Education Law. He is a longtime member of Philadelphia’s nonprofit legal services community. He serves on the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force.