ILF Perspectives: Maha Jweied on Access to Justice

Interview by Lana Green, ILF Intern


Maha Jweied is an ILF board member. She directs a consultancy providing expertise to non-profit and multilateral organizations on access to justice, leveraging insight gained after nearly 12 years in the U.S. Government’s Executive Branch. This post is based on an interview conducted over Zoom in December 2020 and subsequent discussions.


Tell us about how you became involved in access to justice.

I guess one answer could be that as an attorney, I have recognized how legal systems create disparities for low-income and other underserved communities. But really, I think the answer is that I was in the right place at the right time.


Law school developed my interest in the intersection of international human rights law and U.S. domestic social justice. But initially, my professional experiences were limited to working on each set of issues separately: as a pro bono lawyer in private practice working on a juvenile death penalty case, as a government attorney with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and as a law clerk with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It was not until I joined the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, launched by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010, that I was able to fully explore what it meant to advance social justice issues in the United States through an international frame.


The Office for Access to Justice was directed to work with other ministries of justice to exchange information on how to improve the provision of legal services for low-income and other underserved communities. Joining the office allowed me to continue to advance social justice here in the United States, but with the international hook that had been missing in my work previously.


After nearly a dozen years in the federal executive branch, what did you learn that you’ve taken with you in your work to advance access to justice outside government?


During the Obama Administration, I had the great fortune of working in an office that had the support of Administration and Department of Justice leadership, which meant that we were given the opportunity to develop and implement new policy rather quickly. That in turn translated into being able to see the impact of our activity almost immediately, which was really exciting and frankly something that I miss.


During my three years since leaving public service, I have had the opportunity to work with remarkable civil society and international organizations that help individuals with legal need, the legal aid community that serves those same individuals, and even governments looking to improve their access to justice programs. And this experience has confirmed for me that to create lasting and durable change, you need all these actors and sectors working together. But it also has made clear to me that governments can often move more quickly than other actors. Some of my work during this time has also involved the corporate community dedicated to advancing access to justice. And through those experiences, I have discovered that the private sector can rival governments in the speed with which they can make change happen. I have found that fascinating.

Can you describe a common challenge that prevents underserved communities from equal access to justice?


One of the biggest challenges around access to justice is that people often do not recognize when they have a legal problem. Research tells us that many folks with legal need think that they simply have bad luck. For example, if a woman finds herself in a situation of domestic violence, she may think she had bad luck in choosing her partner, not recognizing that, in fact, a lawyer can help her obtain a protective order to get away from the situation. Similarly, studies show that some people facing eviction will simply ignore it until it’s too late - never realizing there may be a civil legal aid lawyer or other legal help they can secure to help find a solution. There is strong evidence on this particular point: that people with legal need, low-income people in particular, don’t recognize when they need legal help.


One important response to this challenge rests in the legal empowerment movement we have seen take root across the globe. By empowering people to know, use, and shape the laws that affect them, they will be able to advance justice for themselves and their communities.


At the same time, policymakers -- including ones who are lawyers -- don’t always recognize when incorporating legal help into existing anti-poverty programs can improve those same programs. So there’s a lot of education around access to justice needed across the board: from the individuals with legal need to the policymakers who design programs to serve those same individuals.


Can you describe the problems in the delivery of criminal legal aid or public defense services in the United States?


In the United States, the public defense system is drastically underfunded and under-resourced. That’s been true for decades, but has come into stark relief during the pandemic, where resources are scarcer. And on top of the usual need for more resources, defenders are putting their own health at risk as they try to continue to represent their clients during this difficult time. This has meant that in many places across the country, defenders must go to jails and prisons -- where COVID-19 outbreaks are common -- to meet with their clients. As a result, the defender community has had to advocate not just for their clients, but themselves.


Jo-Ann Wallace, President & CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, presented on these issues during last year’s Fourth International Criminal Legal Aid Conference and masterfully described the scope of the problem in the United States - especially during the pandemic.


There are a lot of organizations doing great things in this world. What inspires you about the ILF in particular, and what drew you to its work?

The ILF is fantastic. I first learned of the organization and spoke with the remarkable Jennifer Smith in 2011 tied to some activity at the Department of Justice on comparative defender systems. It was through Jennifer that my office first learned about the development of the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. Subsequently, my office was able to connect with this activity on behalf of the U.S. Government, which ultimately led to the United States’ support of the principles and guidelines and related activity. So from the outset, my experience with the ILF made clear to me that even as a small non-governmental organization based in New York, it was a global leader on access to justice, capable of successfully advocating with governments like the United States.


And the ILF continues to lead on these issues -- even when others who once led on these same issues have faded into the background. A perfect example is the biennial criminal legal aid conferences started in 2014. Each of these conferences -- in South Africa, Argentina, Georgia, and, most recently, Brazil -- has had the steady hand of the ILF among its key organizers. That’s a testament to the importance of the organization and its ability to punch above its weight.


Looking ahead with the ILF, what are you hoping for as a director?


The ILF has helped support the development of the International Legal Aid Network and I hope to see this initiative grow. Having a complementary organization to the International Association of Prosecutors is something that’s desperately needed for the criminal legal aid community. The momentum from the first International Legal Aid Conference in South Africa led to a concerted effort to establish such a body and in 2016 a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the UN Crime Commission called for its launch.


Since that time, the ILF has taken on the challenge to breathe life into the network through the biennial international conferences and related global activity. It’s noteworthy that a nonprofit serves as the engine for this network and I firmly believe that without the ILF’s consistent advocacy around its development, it will not progress.

My hope is that the ILF, as the incubator for the network, can continue to help grow it by building strong partnerships with other leading justice actors so that it can stand on its own. The network is critical for peer-to-peer exchange at the regional and global levels and to facilitate coordination among defenders across the globe in transnational cases. It also has tremendous potential as a platform for joint advocacy efforts supporting the expansion of quality legal aid, which is needed to achieve equal access to justice for all as called for by UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.


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