Our Time Press

Justice Matters, And so Does Access to Justice

Lola Waterman

Lola Waterman, OP-ED
Our Time Press

Racial justice. Social justice. Retributive justice. Restorative justice. Distributive justice. Justice as we individually know it comes in different forms. But what is justice? What does it mean? Is it a vague, unattainable concept? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines justice as “the quality of being just, impartial, or fair.” But how can justice be “just, impartial, or fair” when it is inaccessible?

As an attorney previously in private practice, I experienced that access to justice is oftentimes based on a person’s level of income. As a law clerk now, I observe how underrepresentation or lack thereof, can lead to justice denied. As a community advocate, who has strived to raise legal awareness by organizing legal clinics, know-your-rights workshops, among other pro bono initiatives, the direness of narrowing the access to justice divide is certain. It goes without saying that to attain justice, society must level the playing field when it comes to equal access to justice.

There is an access to justice crisis in our civil and criminal justice system. A crisis that has been further exacerbated by COVID-19, resulting in a digital divide and continued unaffordability. Elderly and disabled litigants face added challenges with navigating the digital world for remote court appearances. Income inequality, loss of employment, and lack of financial resources have caused many to forgo legal representation altogether. As the courts gradually reopen to the public, backlog and a heightened access to justice gap is expected.

In our civil courts, the inevitable end to the eviction moratorium will bring about an avalanche of cases that both the bar and the court system have to be fully prepared to handle. We will need more Guardians Ad Litem who can continue to advocate for the elderly and the disabled. We will need more Small Claims Arbitrators to hear cases and address the backlog. We will need more lawyers and more funding to provide free legal services. We will need judges who can handle cases expeditiously, understand the needs of the communities they serve, and rule with compassion.
Justice should be accessible and not contingent on wealth, power or status. Equal access to justice should be a basic human right. And while eliminating barriers to justice has come a long way, as Dr. Martin Luther King stated, “we still have a long, long, way to go.” There is still much work to be done to further remove barriers to justice for all Brooklynites. More specifically, in Central Brooklyn, we can continue to support attorneys of color, support initiatives that bring much needed legal resources into our communities by participating and sharing information, stir our youth into considering careers in law, advocate for diversity on the bar and on the bench, and exercise our rights to vote.
We are fast approaching the June 22nd primary (early voting started on June 12th). Voter turnout is generally very high during presidential election years, while they are generally low during off-year elections like this year’s upcoming primary. One thing we should have learned from the pandemic is the importance of our state and local governments. Local elections have a huge impact on our daily lives and it is important for every voter to understand that casting a vote from the mayoral race through the judicial races is not only ideal but crucial.
Justice matters. Access to justice matters. Votes matter.

Lola Waterman is a community advocate, law clerk, Small Claims Court Arbitrator, a former private practitioner and Guardian Ad Litem, and a Democratic candidate for Kings County Civil Court Judge in the Second Municipal District in the upcoming primary election. She also is a former columnsit for Our Time Press. www.lolawaterman.com