In a recent op-ed, the editorial board of The Washington Post rightly wrote that justice requires expanding the right to counsel beyond its current, limited bounds. Inadequate legal counsel is part of a larger access to justice crisis that plagues the U.S. and many other countries. The communities facing this crisis are often the same ones facing other compounding crises, including environmental injustice, institutional racism, disproportionately worse COVID-19 outcomes, and economic, food, water, housing, and other insecurities.
Expanding access to lawyers is one part of the solution. But there is another part of the solution that the editorial team overlooked: democratizing law.
In the U.S., law has become such a rarefied, specialized realm that it’s all but inaccessible to the average person. This has permeated into the public’s notion of law. Many people facing, for example, polluters violating permits and poisoning the air, water, or soil feel like their primary legal recourse is to find a lawyer to take their case. Often, lawyers tell them that the best solution is a slow walk through byzantine court procedures where — hopefully — their rights are vindicated months, years, or decades later. That glacial vindication is weak comfort for people facing life- and livelihood-threatening crises at the scale of weeks, days, or even hours.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The idea that highly specialized legal counsel is needed for all matters touching law is deeply problematic. It disenfranchises non-lawyers and concentrates the power of law in the hands of an elite few. And the system tends to reinforce itself, with generation after generation of legal specialists creating ever more-complex legal and regulatory schemes requiring extensive training to master.
Decades (or centuries, depending on how you count) into this unmitigated march towards legal hyper-technocracy, inequity continues. Law in the hands of elite specialists has not propagated a tidal wave of justice.
Democratizing law, or legal empowerment, pushes back against that trend and expands the range of advocacy that can be done without a lawyer. It works to ensure that the communities affected by law can know, use, and shape law. In various ways, legal empowerment efforts all redistribute the tools of law, equipping people most in need with information about not just their rights but also the channels for vindicating those rights. For example:
In New York City’s Court Navigator program, non-lawyer “court navigators” assist tenants in housing court to fill out forms, find their way around the building, and understand court processes. Researchers for the American Bar Foundation and National Center for State Courts wrote that at the time of their study, about one in nine tenants who appeared in housing court would be evicted. Yet in 150 cases in which tenants had help from navigators, they found no evictions at all. Not one.
The Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative, led by returned citizen Jhody Polk, provides non-lawyer incarcerated advocates with training and resources to represent and educate fellow incarcerated people on their cases and their rights. They also create opportunities for former jailhouse lawyers to become leaders in the fight against mass incarceration by using their skills and stories upon release.
At Namati, we are infusing law into community organizing for environmental justice, working with communities facing the brunt of pollution to address threats to health, livelihoods, and environment. The grassroots advocates we work with here in the U.S. research environmental permit conditions, request and review facility compliance reports, submit detailed pollution complaints, and draft community comments to land use plans that represent residents’ collective vision for where they live.
Despite these and other legal empowerment efforts’ proven successes, they face structural limits like the restrictions that serve to maintain attorneys’ monopoly on law. Anyone other than licensed attorneys providing advice on how law applies to someone’s circumstances can be said to be committing “unauthorized practice of law.”
The answer to the injustices resulting from lack of counsel isn’t simply “more counsel.” The real issue lies in the inequitable concentration of power, and the rules that maintain that concentration.
Last updated January 30, 2013.
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Last updated: May 25, 2018
This Policy describes our privacy practices and sets out your obligations and ours with respect to your use of the Site and the Forum. This Policy applies only to the Site and the Forum and does not necessarily apply to our offline collection of information.
Namati may collect and retain two types of information about Site and Forum visitors: (i) personal information that individual visitors voluntarily provide when interacting on the Site or Forum or on certain other occasions (such as via forms or in emails); and (ii) tracking data, which is data that is automatically collected from every Site and Forum visitor as they use and browse the site.
We may, from time to time, store and archive the information you submit to or through the Site and Forum. The information that we gather may include your name, title, and address, telephone number, email address, credit card number or other elements of personal information. In addition, if you contact us, we may keep a record of your correspondence, including any information contained therein.
You may decline to provide any personal information, but please realize that you thereby may be unable to register or to participate in activities or services offered on the Site and/or Forum.
In addition to the information you submit to or through the Site and Forum, we also may collect and store data from and about you gathered in the course of your use of the Site and Forum. We call this “tracking data.”
Such tracking data may include, but is not limited to, information regarding the number and frequency of visits to the Site and Forum, the websites that you access before and after you visit the Site and Forum, the software and operating system used to access the Site and Forum, and your IP address and Internet service provider.
Our use of your Information involves various forms of communication with you, including:
We will not disclose any personal information to third parties, except:
Information provided to third parties is limited to the information needed to perform their functions. We seek to limit third-party use of information; however, we are not responsible for such third-party use of information.
We retain the right to transfer or assign all information pursuant to a merger, purchase or other transaction relating to Namati or our assets.
The current list of third-party service providers we use include:
Personal information you submit via your member account, other than information provided or content posted by you to public areas of the Site as described below, is deleted from Namati’s records following the deletion of your account. However, such information may continue to be retained by third-party service providers to which it has been disclosed for one of the reasons listed above.
Your Information is stored on Digital Ocean servers in New York, USA.
We take reasonable precautions to protect your information from loss, misuse or alteration. You should recognize, however, that there is no such thing as “perfect security” on the Internet, and we cannot guarantee the security of your information. In addition, because Internet communications are unsecure, it is also possible that the information you supply to us or your access of any information via the Site will be intercepted during transmission. We are not liable for any breach of our systems or interception of our transmission, and we hereby fully disclaim, to the fullest extent possible under law, any liability associated with any claim relating to a breach of security, data or information.
You should be aware that any information provided or content posted by you to public areas of the Site, including but not limited to interactions on the Site and information posted to the Member Directory (via your profile), the Tools Database and the Forum, may be read, collected or used by other visitors of the Site, who may not need to log in as a member to view the information. Namati is not responsible for the third-party use of any information provided in such manner. By participating in the use of the Site’s interactive features, you consent to Namati’s use or disclosure of any content that you submit. For more information on posting content, please see our Terms.
The Forum uses data about your posts and other activity to make automated decisions about whether your posts are spam.
The Forum may also use data about your posts and activity to award you badges and calculate a trust level for your account. Your trust level may affect how you can participate in the Forum, such as whether you can upload images, as well as give you access to moderation and management powers in the Forum. Your trust level, therefore, reflects Forum administrators’ confidence in you, and their willingness to delegate community management functions, like moderation.
From time to time, we may email users of the Site or the Forum information regarding important developments affecting Namati and/or the Global Legal Empowerment Network. We may also email users on occasion regarding the Site or the Forum. Such emails may be sent to users of the Site or Forum even if they have not requested to receive any communication from us.
You may choose to unsubscribe from future emails by using the unsubscribe link included in all mass email correspondence from Namati and the Global Legal Empowerment Network.
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Because Namati is concerned about the privacy protection of children who access the Internet, we comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Accordingly, the Site and Forum are not intended for use by anyone under the age of 13, and we do not knowingly collect information from anyone under 13 years of age without the consent of a parent or guardian.
We reserve the right to disclose any information to comply with any law, regulation, decree, judgment, order, subpoena or any other governmental order (“Order”) without any obligation to contest or verify the accuracy of such Order.
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The section titles in this Policy are for convenience only and have no legal or contractual effect.
The Site, the Forum, and any third party services they use, may be subject to additional terms and conditions regarding privacy and use of information. Your use of the Site and the Forum is subject to those terms and conditions, which are incorporated into this Policy by reference. In the event of an inconsistency between this Policy and any additional posted conditions, the provisions of the additional conditions shall control.
We may need to change the Policy from time to time in order to address new issues and to reflect changes on the Site or in the law. We reserve the right to revise or make any changes to the Policy, and your continued use of the Site subsequent to any changes to this Policy will mean that you agree to and accept such changes. You can tell if the Policy has been updated by checking the last revised date posted on the top of this page.
You can also access, remove, update or correct your information, and raise any questions or concerns regarding the Site or the Policy, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or mailing:
Namati Data Protection Officer
1616 P Street NW, Suite 101
Washington, DC 20036, USA
If you live in a country which has adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (EU; 2016/679), you have a right to lodge a complaint with your relevant supervisory authority about this policy and its application.
The Policy was updated in May 2018 to comply with the General Data Protection Regulations.