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Access to Justice: The Public Administration Challenge

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joe Jarret
January 20, 2023

“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society.” – United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.


America’s civil legal system is designed to provide its citizens with the opportunity to seek and obtain justice when our rights have been violated and a forum for redress when we have been wronged. The term “access to justice” describes the ability of any person, regardless of income, to use the legal system to advocate for themselves and their interests. We rely on the civil legal system to address important problems like wrongful foreclosure, domestic violence, divorce, discrimination, bankruptcy and many other critical legal issues. While the civil legal system can be a powerful tool for remedying wrongs, it is also extremely complex, and can be difficult to navigate without the help of a trained attorney. For those unable to afford an attorney, access to the court system and the justice it can provide are limited. In fact, statistics compiled by various bar associations across the United States revealed that millions of Americans lack any access to the system, let alone equal access. An estimated four-fifths of the civil legal needs of the poor, and the needs of an estimated two-thirds of middle-income individuals, remain unmet. It would be incorrect to presume that the burden of providing access to the civil justice system is borne solely by lawyers and judges. Rather, today’s public administrators play a significant role in the various aspects of assisting citizens in gaining access to the civil justice system.

Public Administration

If you were to ask the average person what comes to mind when they hear terms such as “public administrators” or “ public managers,” they’ll most likely equate them to the chief executives of cities, counties or state agencies or departments. However, access to justice is not the exclusive domain of judges and lawyers. The court systems responsible for access to justice need professional public administrators to organize and manage operational matters in conjunction with judicial leadership, just as city or county managers, school superintendents and hospital administrators manage their spheres of operation in conjunction with the leadership of elected officials and the public. Virtually every expert in the field of judicial administration has stressed the need for management by educated and trained professionals. The professional standards set by the National Association for Court Management for court administrators include administrative ability, business and management techniques, formal training in court administration, high ethical standards and a degree in judicial administration, public administration, business administration or law. Further, like their city, county or state counterparts, court administrators perform multiple functions, including, but not limited to, human resources management, fiscal administration, case-flow management, technology management, information management, jury management, space management, intergovernmental liaison and community relations, research and advisory services.

Access to Justice Commissions

Interestingly, most state court systems have created access to justice commissions staffed by public administrators which are surprisingly uniform. The stated purpose of such commissions is to study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income and moderate-income citizens and to address the long-term and complex barriers that create difficulties for those citizens seeking meaningful access to civil justice. Such commissions play an essential role in bringing together the community, courts and tribunals, local and state government, the private bar, law schools and other community stakeholders, to build, improve and support innovations that promote equal access to justice.

The Pandemic

Due to the pandemic, the ability to conduct in-person court proceedings became severely limited across the United States, resulting in the need for many litigants to participate in proceedings using remote technology. Court administrators quickly learned that remote participation in court proceedings was especially challenging for low-income, self-represented litigants, who often lacked computers and other electronic devices and access to the internet. They likewise lacked information about how to use remote appearance platforms, how to seek assistance from clerk and court staff before or during a remote proceeding and how to admit evidence electronically. It was not uncommon for self-represented litigants to suffer a default or dismissal of their case due to their failure to file requisite court documents/pleadings for the above-named reasons in a timely manner.


As more and more courts systems work towards addressing the lack of access to justice by its citizens, public administrators will continue to be relied upon to achieve this noble goal. In the meantime, we’re still a long way from legal scholar Reginald Heber Smith’s vision uttered over 100 years ago: “There will come a time when denial of justice on account of poverty shall forever be made impossible in America.”

Author: Dr. Joseph G. Jarret, Ph.D., is a public sector manager, attorney, and mediator who has served four different governmental entities as chief legal counsel in Florida and Tennessee. A former United States Army Armored Cavalry Office with service overseas, and public risk manager, he lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science, and the Education Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the past-president of the East Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.

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