, New York Law Journal

February 26, 2014

When trying to measure access to civil legal assistance, empirical data can be hard to find. But an ambitious online database released Tuesday by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law's National Center for Access to Justice aims to solve that problem by showing state-by-state comparisons of available services such as affordable counsel and foreign language interpreters in state courts.

The "Justice Index" attempts to quantify access-to-justice problems through interactive data visualizations and graphics that show which states are doing the most and least to meet people's needs, said David Udell, director of the center.


"The purpose is to wake states up to the importance of providing their courts with essential resources to deliver on the American promise of equal justice," he said.


Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, whose signature issue has been increasing access to legal counsel for New Yorkers who can't afford an attorney, praised the index as an "extraordinarily useful" tool for evaluating states' progress in meeting citizens' needs and uncovering shortfalls.


"It shows that there are certain commonalities in different states' access issues that we can measure and compare through empirical analysis," Lippman said.


States were assigned a score in each category based on data the initiative's volunteers collected from the state court systems over the past year. From there, states were assigned an overall composite score on a scale of 1 to 100.


New York came in seventh place nationwide in offering access to the courts and second in a category measuring the number of lawyers per people in poverty. For every 10,000 poor New Yorkers, the state has 3.11 civil legal aid lawyers. Vermont was the only state that scored higher, with 4.35. Some states have fewer than one.


New York also fell slightly below the national average for its support of pro se litigants. That category assigned scores based on a series of yes or no questions. For example, New York earned points for having an office in the state court system dedicated to helping pro se litigants, but was docked for not having a rule in place to provide extra help to pro se litigants with little or no literacy.


In its provision of qualified foreign language interpreters, New York came in 12th nationwide. For disability assistance, it came in 19th place.


"What was most surprising was that we weren't first in the country in more categories, because we are the most proactive in access to justice," said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, at an event Tuesday announcing the Justice Index launch.

"We have a lot to respond to," said Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher said in response to Rasmussen. "New York is not perfect. No state is perfect, but we're working toward solutions."


Udell came to Cardozo in 2010 to oversee the National Center for Access to Justice. Before that, he served as the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Udell said these experiences showed him the need for hard data to measure the true extent of widely known problems in the justice system.


"I was eager to bring measurement to those problems as a means to promote reform," Udell said.


More than 40 people worked on the database on a pro bono basis, including attorneys and staff with the Pfizer Legal Alliance and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Two financial services firms, Deloitte and UBS, helped with the research, data analysis and calculation of the indices. Teams of students from Cardozo Law and the University of Pennsylvania Law School contributed research help as well.


Starting last year, volunteers began conducting research to devise index criteria and survey questions to send to state judiciaries. The survey responses, along with information collected from state court websites, was plugged into the database to determine states' scores in each category.


The data in the index can be isolated to show how individual states or regions fare in each of four categories: support for people with limited English proficiency, services for people with disabilities, ratio of lawyers to people in poverty, and support for pro se defendants.

The index was modeled on the Democracy Index, an annual report by Economist Intelligence Unit, the research and analysis arm of the Economist Media Group, that measures access to democracy worldwide. Udell said he hopes to expand the project to explore states' progress in meeting access-to-justice needs of criminal defendants, immigrants, women and other groups.


"The Justice Index shows that number of lawyers for people in poverty, whether in New York, or in other states, is just a tiny sliver as compared to the number of lawyers available in our society for those who can pay," he said.