Why Access to Justice Matters

“Equal Justice Under Law” is a promise in our Constitution that must be kept in our courts.  

Every year, tens of millions of Americans need the help of our court system to deal with critical and difficult moments in their lives.

Women need refuge from domestic violence. Children need protection from abuse, exploitation and neglect. Parents need to contend with the pain and problems of divorce. Families need to fight unfair evictions and foreclosures. People need a place to demand fair treatment from powerful institutions. Town, city, county, and state courts across the country work hard to meet that need. But for millions of people, the cost and complexity of the courts put the help of the law out of reach. The goal of the Justice Index is to help change that.

Fairness starts with access

Justice depends on having a fair chance to be heard, regardless of who you are, where you live, or how much money you have. At minimum, a person should be able to learn about her rights and then give effective voice to them in a neutral and nondiscriminatory, formal or informal, process that determines the facts, applies the rule of law, and enforces the result.

That is Access to Justice.

The Justice Index

The National Center for Access to Justice (“NCAJ”) created the Justice Index to make access to justice a reality for all. The Justice Index relies on data to improve state justice systems. It compares states’ performance overall, based on findings on 112 indicators grouped in four categories, to reveal a vivid picture of the systems in place to assure access to justice in our country. With clear, concise, and public findings, the Justice Index allows:

  • Judges, administrators, and advocates to see where their efforts do the most good at the lowest cost
  • The public to learn about justice system performance and demand accountability
  • Researchers to rely on patterns to conduct investigations that identify better practices
  • Everyone to press for adoption of selected best practices that have been proven to work or recommended by experts.

This is a national and global challenge and opportunity

The Justice Index is part of a growing movement in America and around the world that understands access to justice as the key not only to fairness and justice, but also to stability and prosperity.

In the United States, chief judges and chief court administrators have committed the state courts to the goal of “100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs” and to adopting strategic plans “with realistic and measurable outcomes” that assure the goal will be achieved in all jurisdictions. You can read their formal resolution here.

Around the world, member countries of the United Nations have adopted “Global Goal 16,” which recognizes that access to justice is a critical part of sustainable development of peaceful and inclusive societies. Goal 16 is part of a set of 17 “sustainable development goals” intended to end extreme poverty by the year 2030. Following in the path of the highly successful Millennium Development Goals, the new Global Goals call on all countries to use the power of the data revolution to both drive and manage change. The U.S. has already established a White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable charged with the responsibility to assist the United States in implementing Goal 16. You can read the Presidential Memorandum here.

NCAJ’s Justice Index – at its core, a system of indicators, data, and findings about access to justice – is aligned with these new U.S. and global data-reliant initiatives, and also with the work of the American Bar Association, Legal Services Corporation, Self-Represented Litigation Network, National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, Pro Bono Net, civil legal aid programs across the land, and others who are striving to increase access to justice for all in the United States.

The limits of the Justice Index research

The laws, rules and policies tracked by the Justice Index represent a critical framework states should have in place to make it possible to provide access to justice to their most vulnerable residents. Our research is done at the state level. We believe that consistency across a state is important in providing consistent access to all. However, many court systems vary greatly by county and often by specific court. Research at these more local levels is incredibly important to understanding, and to developing plans to improve, access to justice. Individual courts or counties may be struggling despite well structured rules and programs at the state level. And individual courts or counties may be outperforming their statewide programs through their own efforts, creativity and dedication. Also important is further research into the quality of implementation of many of the matters tracked by the Justice Index. A number of other organizations are embarked on these key research programs. As more data becomes available, the Justice Index will incorporate findings from this kind of research to make the Justice Index a still stronger tool.

More information

With respect to these goals, and issues of any kind you believe should be brought to NCAJ’s attention, please contact us at info@ncforaj.org. For more information, visit: