Biden instructs Justice Dept. to expand legal aid for poorer Americans

Don Johnson
The words Equal Justice Under Law are seen on the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
The words "Equal Justice Under Law" are seen on the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

May 18 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden will instruct the Justice Department on Tuesday to expand access to publicly funded lawyers and legal assistance for poorer Americans, the White House announced.

Biden will sign an executive memo asking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to form a plan within 120 days that details efforts to expand access to lawyers for low-income Americans in criminal and civil cases.


The administration says the move addresses a critical need for tens of millions of Americans who cannot ordinarily afford legal counsel to guide them through criminal and civil courts.

"The federal government has a critical role to play in expanding access to the nation's legal system and supporting the work of civil legal aid providers and public defenders," the White House said.

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It added that low-income Americans have "struggled to secure quality access to the legal system" and the challenges have only increased during the COVID-19 era.

"At the same time, civil legal aid providers and public defenders have been under-resourced, understaffed, and unable to reach some of the people in greatest need of their services," it notes.

Biden's administration has previously requested $1.5 billion to improve state and local criminal justice systems, which includes money to hire more public defenders.

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Garland is expected to outline steps his department will take to expand access to the legal system.

In 2010, the department opened the Office for Access to Justice for the same reason, but the office was effectively shut down three years ago by former President Donald Trump, the White House said.

Biden's memo also re-establishes the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which was established in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama and is designed to identify ways to address related issues in the legal system.

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Since taking office, Biden has taken multiple steps to reform the justice system and advance racial equity. He signed orders on his first day in office to address racial equity as a government-wide initiative -- a direct response, he said, to the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota a year ago and the national movement that followed.

The Justice Department last month opened separate investigations into police practices in Minneapolis, over Floyd's death, and Louisville, Ky., owing to the police shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

Protesters march for social justice

The Surrogate's Court building exterior remains vandalized while Occupy City Hall protests continue outside City Hall in New York City on June 30. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

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