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Issue 6: Enhancing Access to Justice and the Judicial Process

How can the judiciary ensure that justice in the federal courts is fair, impartial, and accessible to all, regardless of wealth or status, and that the courts remain comprehensible, accessible, and affordable for people who participate in the judicial process? 

Issue Description 

Courts are obligated to be open and accessible to anyone who initiates or is drawn into federal litigation, including litigants, lawyers, jurors, and witnesses. The federal courts must consider carefully whether they are continuing to meet the litigation needs of court users. In the criminal context, where the vast majority of federal criminal defendants are eligible for the appointment of counsel, the judiciary must ensure that the needs of appointed counsel and the clients they represent are met. This plan includes three strategies that focus on identifying unnecessary barriers to justice and court access, and taking steps to eliminate them.

Strategy 6.1

Ensure that court rules, processes, and procedures meet the needs of lawyers and litigants in the judicial process.

Background and Commentary. The accessibility of court processes to lawyers and litigants is a component of the judiciary’s core value of equal justice, but making courts readily accessible is difficult. Providing access is even more difficult when people look to the federal courts to address problems that cannot be solved within the federal courts’ limited jurisdiction, when claims are not properly raised, and when judicial processes are not well understood.

To improve access, rules of practice and procedure undergo regular review and revision to reflect changes in law, to simplify and clarify procedures, and to enhance uniformity across districts. Rules changes have also been made to help reduce cost and delay in the civil discovery process, to address the growing role of electronic discovery, and to take widespread advantage of technology in court proceedings. National mechanisms to consolidate and coordinate multidistrict litigation have been implemented to avoid duplication of discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary. In addition, many courts provide settlement conferences, mediation programs, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution to parties interested in resolving their claims prior to a judicial decision. Despite these and other efforts, some lawyers, litigants, and members of the public continue to find litigating in the federal courts challenging. Court operations and processes vary across districts and chambers, and pursuing federal litigation can be time consuming and expensive.

To improve access for lawyers and litigants in the judicial process, this plan includes the following goals:

Goal 6.1a:   Ensure that court rules, processes, and procedures are published or posted in an accessible manner.

Goal 6.1b:   Adopt measures designed to provide flexibility in the handling of cases, while reducing cost, delay, and other unnecessary burdens to litigants in the adjudication of disputes.

Strategy 6.2

Ensure that the federal judiciary is open and accessible, on a non-discriminatory basis,  to all those who participate in the judicial process.

Background and Commentary. As part of its commitment to the core value of equal justice, the federal judiciary seeks to assure that all who participate in federal court proceedings — including jurors, litigants, bankruptcy participants, witnesses, journalists, and observers — are treated with dignity and respect and understand the process. The judiciary’s national website and the websites of individual courts provide the public with information about the courts themselves, court rules, procedures and forms, judicial orders and decisions, and schedules of court proceedings. Court dockets and case papers and files are posted on the internet through a judiciary-operated public access system. Court forms commonly used by the public have been rewritten in an effort to make them clearer and simpler to use, and court facilities are now designed to provide greater access to persons with disabilities. Some districts offer electronic tools to assist pro se filers in generating civil complaints. The Judicial Conference is working to enhance citizen participation in juries by improving the degree to which juries are representative of the communities in which they serve, reducing the burden of jury service, and improving juror utilization.

However, federal court processes are complex, and it is an ongoing challenge to ensure that participants have access to information about court processes and individual court cases, as well as court facilities. Many who come to the courts also have limited proficiency in English, and resources to provide interpretation and translation services are limited, particularly for civil litigants and bankruptcy participants. Continued efforts are needed, and this strategy sets forth four goals to make courts more accessible for jurors, litigants, bankruptcy participants, witnesses, and others.

Goal 6.2a:   Provide jurors, litigants, bankruptcy participants, witnesses, journalists, and observers with comprehensive, readily accessible information about court cases and the work of the courts.

Goal 6.2b:   Improve the extent to which juries are representative of the communities in which they serve, reduce the hardships associated with jury service, and improve the experiences of citizens serving as grand and petit jurors.

Goal 6.2c:   Develop best practices for handling claims of pro se litigants in civil and bankruptcy cases.

Strategy 6.3

Promote effective administration of the criminal defense function in the federal courts. 

Background and Commentary. In the criminal context, access to fair and impartial justice is supported by appointing counsel to represent defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own counsel or other services necessary for their defense. Under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), the judiciary oversees the provision of these defense services to eligible criminal defendants. In exercising this role, consistent with the Sixth Amendment, judges, acting as neutral arbiters in individual cases, must fairly and reasonably determine the resources available to the defense in any given case involving appointed counsel. To ensure the effective operation of the adversarial system and access to effective and conflict-free representation, the judiciary must strive to ensure that CJA practitioners can mount a skilled and vigorous defense of their clients, regardless of race, color, sex, gender, gender identity, pregnancy, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, age, or disability, so that the rights of individual defendants are safeguarded and enforced.

Consistent with the recommendations of the Judicial Conference’s Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act Program, the judiciary must continue to consider improvements to the national administration of the defender services program.

This strategy supports the judiciary’s efforts to pursue improvements in the fair and impartial delivery of justice (Strategy 1.1) and promotes public trust and confidence in the justice system by ensuring fair trials and proceedings (Issue 2), through three goals:

Goal 6.3a:   Encourage districts to adopt and implement CJA plans based on the judiciary’s model CJA plan to ensure compliance with relevant Judicial Conference policies. 

Goal 6.3b:   Ensure that CJA practitioners have the resources to provide effective and conflict-free representation.

Goal 6.3c:   Provide training regarding best practices for criminal defense representation.