Civil Legal Aid Cuts Are A Threat To Justice And Prosperity

By David Carter | October 13, 2023, 3:53 PM EDT ·

David Carter
David Carter
As it's currently written, the U.S. House of Representatives' budget proposal for fiscal year 2024 would slice millions away from civil legal aid — and this $71 million in cuts would devastate the lives of lower-income people, according to the Legal Services Corporation.[1]

Yet, this measure would not actually save money in the long run. In fact, it harms the U.S. economy. That's because improving access to justice also fuels the bottom lines of communities and nations.

The last decade has seen a growing recognition that the inability to access justice is a major challenge for people across the globe.

According to a 2021 report from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, two-thirds of Americans had faced one or more legal issues in the past four years.[2] And, of those, slightly less than half reported that their issue was fully addressed.

In the legal profession, access to justice problems are increasingly recognized as a moral failure, and one that disproportionately affects certain socio-demographic and racial/ethnic groups.

As the American Bar Association states "international standards recognize access to justice as both a basic human right and a means to protect other universally recognized human rights."[3]

Yet along with the human rights aspect, there is a growing body of research that access to justice is also a critical source of national economic growth. Simply put, enabling more access to justice is the right thing for leaders to do for citizens' and a nations' overall economic health.

In fact, even slight improvements in the ways citizens can take part in the justice system adds up to billions of dollars. A 2019 study, "Access to Justice and Economic Development: Evidence from an International Panel Dataset," finds that just a 1% increase in access to justice increases the five-year gross domestic product per capita growth rate by 0.7%.[4]

In defining access to justice, the study's authors viewed judges per capita as a proxy number.[5] To put that into context, a 1% increase in access to justice could mean an increase of more than $187 billion in the U.S. GDP.[6] Globally, the increase would be more than $700 billion. [7]

So, where does this economic growth come from? The authors point out that access to justice leads to a lower share of government consumption in GDP, less public corruption, a smaller shadow economy, better protection of property rights and better regulation of credit markets.

The authors' conclusions complement other country-specific studies showing the importance of court effectiveness for entrepreneurship, credit, agricultural and industrial activities.

Also consider that a 2017 Florida Bar Foundation report found a $7 economic boost for the state for each dollar that low-income residents received in civil legal services.[8] And a 2014 study in Brazil showed that opening more civil courts led to an increase in entrepreneurship because it made access to the courts easier and the time to resolve disputes quicker.[9]

Likewise, a 2018 study in France showed that closing labor courts in select communities led to fewer jobs and fewer new businesses than those communities that were not affected.[10]

Under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult for many to gain access to justice.

Access to justice was even more hampered during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused so many courtrooms to slam their doors closed. According to a report by the Federal Judicial Center,[11] during the first two years of the pandemic, both criminal and civil proceedings in U.S. district courts moved more slowly and courts processed fewer cases.

According to the report, criminal cases saw a 44% slowdown, with 27% fewer cases. The impact on civil cases resulted in 7% longer time frames from filing to termination, even as there were 6% fewer cases.

Opening the Courts to More Citizens

So, how can we go about correcting these wrongs, while simultaneously deriving the resultant economic benefits? There are several ways to do so.

For example, the Access to Justice and Economic Development study pointed out that increasing the number of judges per capita improves access to justice: "More judges means more resolved cases, reducing both the monetary and time cost of access to justice."

Interestingly the study did not find a decrease in quality of judges as the quantity increased. In fact, the study pointed to findings that indicate more judges is even positively associated with an increase in judicial independence.

A 2021 study in India similarly concluded that the capacity of the civil courts to timely resolve disputes was correlated with the growth in the manufacturing sector.[12]

Another way to increase access to justice, and therefore boost economies, is to strengthen civil legal aid. Of course, this is the opposite of what the current House of Representatives' budget referenced above would do, by decreasing the budget for civil legal aid.

As the Florida Bar Foundation study noted, economic benefits from civil legal services resulted in cost savings — by preventing foreclosure, as one example — benefits awarded, such as child and spousal support, and economic multipliers, including new jobs and more business income.

Technology can also be a powerful way to improve access to justice. Tools such as online legal resources that provide free or low-cost legal information and resources can be a valuable source of information for people who are facing legal problems.

Online dispute resolution also allows people to resolve their issues without going physically to court — this is immensely helpful for those who live in rural areas, can't take time off of work or who have limited mobility, for example.

As Connecticut's Judicial Branch points out, online dispute resolution can save time and money: "You can participate from anywhere at almost any time, usually without having to take time off from work or other commitments to come to the courthouse."[13]

Recognizing the growing body of research on the importance of investing in access to justice is something our leaders should do sooner rather than later.

As the studies cited clarify, access to justice is not just a matter of social justice, but also a driver of economic growth. The case is more compelling than ever, and so is the need.

Fortunately, there are many different levers that governments, policymakers, philanthropists and investors can pull to meet this moment.

From filling judicial backlogs to providing more legal aid services to increasing investments in technology, we can all work together to ensure that everyone has access to the justice that they deserve.

After all, it's in everyone's best interests to do so.

David Carter is president and CEO at Calloquy PBC.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] Legal Services Corporation, "Proposed House FY 2024 Budget would Devastate Access to Civil Legal Aid," July 14, 2023

[2] Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, "Accessing Justice Needs Across the United States," n.d.,

[3] American Bar Association, "Human Rights and Access to Justice," n.d.,

[4] Deseau, A.; Levai, A.; and Schmiegelow, M. "Access to Justice and Economic Development: Evidence from an International Panel Dataset." to justice_and_growth_shrllll.pdf.

[5] Ibid.  

[6] The most recent estimate of the US GDP released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on August 30, 2023, estimates the US GDP to be $26.8 trillion.

[7] The World Bank's latest estimate for global GDP was $100.56 trillion.

[8] The Florida Bar Foundation, "Economic Impacts of Civil Legal Aid Organizations in Florida," Nov. 4, 2016.,

[9] Lichand, G. and Soares, R. R. (2014). Access to justice and Entrepreneurship: Evidence from Brazil's Special Civil Tribunals. The Journal of Law and Economics, 57(2):459-499.

[10] Espinosa, R., Desrieux, C., and Ferracci, M. (2018). Labor Market and Access to Justice. International Review of Law and Economics, 54:1-16.

[11] Germano, R., Lau, T., and Garri, K. "COVID-19 and the U.S. District Courts: An Empirical Investigation." October 2022.

[12] Amirapu, A. (2021), Justice Delayed is Growth Denied:  The Effect of Slow Courts on Relationship-Specific Industries in India, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 70(1):415-451.

[13] State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, "Online Dispute Resolution (ODR): Pilot Program in the Judicial Districts of Hartford and New Haven," n.d.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!