Our legal system - and much of the research conducted on that system - often separates people and issues into civil and criminal silos. However, those two worlds intersect and influence one another in important ways. The qualitative empirical study that forms the basis of this Article bridges the civil-criminal divide by exploring the life circumstances and events of public defender clients to determine how they experience and respond to civil legal problems.
To date, studies addressing civil legal needs more generally have not focused on those individuals enmeshed with the criminal justice system, even though that group offers a rich source of valuable information. Researchers interested in civil aspects of criminal defense have focused primarily on the collateral consequences of conviction and the effectiveness of holistic defense programs. This exploratory study is the first of its kind - focused on civil legal problems unrelated to clients' criminal cases, but instead those that arise int he course of their everyday lives.
The study reveals that for public defender clients, civil justice is unfamiliar territory. While not strangers to the legal system or to lawyers, the clients we interviewed had very little experience with - or awareness of - available civil legal resources. In addition, they face a number of cognitive, procedural, and structural obstacles that make it difficult to navigate the legal system, including a lack of access to information and tools that enable them to use the civil legal system to address relevant needs. Yet, their life circumstances and the situations they encounter suggest many opportunities for possible civil legal intervention, whether through an attorney or other self-help mechanism.
By providing a better understanding of how indigent criminal defendants understand, experience, and respond to civil legal problems, the barriers that prevent them from addressing those needs, and opportunities for intervention, this Article forces the access-to-justice conversation out of its siloed confines. In doing so, it aims to engage civil and criminal scholars, practitioners, and policymakers in a discussion of how to make the civil justice system more accessible to all.