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Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic

March 27, 2015

A Laboratory for Scholarship: Underlining Justice in Access to Justice

Professor Elizabeth MacDowell, director of the Family Justice Clinic, examines the ways in which civil courts function to regulate the poor in historical as well as contemporary contexts. She, along with two other Boyd clinician-scholars, received the Association of American Law Schools Bellows Award, which recognizes academics whose research promises to improve justice for underserved communities. Professor MacDowell's research focuses on intersectional issues of gender, race, and class, domestic violence, and access to justice. Within this work, she seeks to shift the focus of access to justice scholarship and practice toward substantive justice, while illuminating the role of the state in civil actions, including those between poor people.

Professor MacDowell’s most recent article, Reimagining Access to Justice in the Poor People's Courts, 22 Geo. J. Pov. L. & Pol'y (forthcoming 2015), presents an extensive intellectual review of the pathologies of "poor people’s courts," which include family, housing, small claims and other consumer courts that serve large numbers of low-income people. The article shows how many contemporary access to justice initiatives miss the mark or can even make matters worse: for example, efforts to provide counsel to poor people often fail to appreciate that advocates in poor people's courts are sometimes part of the problem; other well-intentioned initiatives can be implemented without regard to court cultures and practices that put litigants at risk of losing their substantive rights or experiencing dignitary harms. Calling for a transformation of systems through empowerment, mobilization, and democratization, Professor MacDowell proposes a profound reimagining of what is needed to address the needs of low-income litigants in poor people's courts.

In a series of articles based on her empirical work, Professor MacDowell examines how access to justice initiatives address gender violence. Domestic Violence and the Politics of Self-Help reports on her research at domestic violence self-help clinics in two western states. Using the sociological concept of demeanor, the article shows how self-help staff members reward and punish protection order applicants in ways that tend to disfavor applicants’ efforts at self-advocacy, and that correspond with stereotypes about victims and perpetrators. Historically, protection orders were developed by advocates to empower low-income battered women, and redress the barriers low-income women of color face in accessing the courts. The article demonstrates the importance of connecting access to justice research to social movements, and expands on prior studies of how the law is implemented through everyday interactions as well as formal decision-making.

In another article, Professor MacDowell analyzes the impacts of organizational and system dynamics on self-help services, and to link access to justice discourse to theories about the state. She will be presenting these at, inter alia, the Advancing Equal Access to Justice Conference at UC Hastings College of the Law and at the AALS Workshop on Shifting Foundations in Family Law: Family Law’s Responses to Changing Families.

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