Last week, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released the third and final publication in the first phase of its work on civil justice, Measuring Civil Justice for All: What Do We Know? What Do We Need to Know? How Can We Know It? First Idea was involved in every aspect of the project, which was co-chaired by distinguished social scientist John Mark Hansen and 2018 MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner, sociologist Rebecca Sandefur.

The report provides a blueprint for the collection of data about the experiences of ordinary Americans, especially the underserved and underprivileged, as they try to navigate legal matters related to housing, employment, family issues, veterans issues, health care…any legal problem that does not involve the criminal justice system.

Measuring Civil Justice for All identifies a clear problem: “Though the civil justice gap has persisted for decades, scholarly research on the issue has been relatively haphazard. Important studies have responded to the specific needs of the policy community or to the curiosity of individual scholars. But no clear research agenda has emerged. Nor have practitioners—lawyers, courts, legal clinics, and so on—organized themselves to advance the knowledge of the field.”

In short, we as a nation do not know how well or poorly our institutions of civil justice serve the needs of the people.

More accurately, we know our institutions are serving us poorly; we just don’t know how poorly. As a result, we have not been able to formulate effective policies or advance successful solutions. And the civil justice gap–the difference between the number of Americans who require legal assistance and the very few who receive assistance of any kinds–continues to grow.

Legal service providers have made heroic efforts to serve the neediest among us. But addressing the civil justice gap requires systemic change. The first step in upending an old, inefficient system is describing the necessary changes as clearly and precisely as possible. For that, we need much more data.

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