When the Commission was created in 2005, the District was in a small minority of jurisdictions that did not provide public funds to address the civil legal needs of indigent residents. The Commission made its first priority the creation of a public funding stream for legal services, and in 2006 persuaded the D.C. Council to establish a landmark annual appropriation of public funds entitled the Access to Justice Initiative. Since that time, that program has infused over $106 million of urgently needed funds into the legal services network. Those funds support lawyers who provide direct services to residents with acute legal issues. The program has enabled several legal services providers to establish or expand offices in the most underserved areas of the city, and more than doubled the number of attorneys working east of the Anacostia River.


While the Initiative has generally received broad support, there have been moments when the District’s financial challenges have imperiled these vital funds. Before the economic downturn, funding for the Access to Justice Initiative had climbed to $3.6 million for the fiscal year. In 2010, the program was twice slotted for severe funding cuts that would have undermined the important progress we had made in closing the justice gap. Mayor Fenty’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 slashed the program to 50% of its fiscal year 2009 level. In response, the Commission mounted a community–wide campaign to preserve the funding. Because of these efforts, the Chief Judges of the D.C. Court of Appeals and the Superior Court, the President of the District of Columbia Bar, and twenty–five former Presidents of the District of Columbia Bar submitted letters urging the Council to preserve the funds. Group and individual letters were also submitted by nearly sixty different legal and non–legal organizations. In addition, the Litigation Section of the Bar, joined by nine other Bar sections, issued a public statement urging the Council to protect the program. Under the Commission’s leadership, the District’s legal community demonstrated its broad support for equal access to justice. This led the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary to take the unprecedented step of issuing a separate Committee Report on the importance of the Access to Justice Initiative. Most important, the Council restored the funding level to $3.5 million.

The Access to Justice Initiative was again threatened with drastic cuts in December 2010 when Mayor Fenty’s Budget Gap Closing Plan proposed to cut the already–appropriated funding by more than 50%. The Commission again mobilized the legal community, persuading leaders in many legal spheres—including Stephen Zack, the President of the American Bar Association—to urge the Council to restore the funding. Again, as a result of these efforts, the Council restored most of the funding, to a level of $3.1 million for fiscal year 2011.

In 2011, the Commission’s targeted advocacy with the Executive Branch helped to ensure level funding for the Access to Justice Initiative for fiscal year 2012. At the Commission’s request, both Chief Judges of the District of Columbia Courts, the D.C. Bar President, and members of the Mayor’s Transition Team sent letters to Mayor Gray urging him to preserve funding for the program. During Council budget negotiations, Councilmember Phil Mendelson, a longtime champion of the Access to Justice Initiative, succeeded in restoring funding to $3.2 million—the level at which the program was funded at its inception. In 2012, targeted advocacy with the Executive Branch again ensured level funding for the program for fiscal year 2013. During Council budget negotiations, Councilmember Mendelson again championed the program resulting in an increase in funding to $3.5 million.

Mayor Gray’s fiscal year 2014 budget funded the program at $3.575 million and again Chairman Mendelson was again able to secure additional funds for the program, funding it at $3.75 million.

For FY 2015 targeted advocacy with the Executive Branch led to Mayor Gray proposing an increase in funding to $4.278 million. Councilmember Tommy Wells, then the Chair of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, and Chairman Mendelson, maintained that level which represents more than a half million dollar increase in funding. For FY 2016, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson increased funding level by $750,000 to $5.028 million, a funding level that was repeated in FY 2017.

The FY 2018 budget included a slight increase of slightly over $270,000 to $5.3 million in the core Access to Justice program, as well as an additional $4.5 million in funding for a new Civil Legal Counsel program to support the legal representation of low-income tenants facing eviction – with the strong support of Chairman Charles Allen of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

Through continued efforts and leadership, the Initiative has enjoyed increases in each subsequent year: FY 2019 funding was over $10M; FY 2020 funding was over $11M; and FY 2021 funding (even as the District faced the impact of the COVID-19 crisis) was over $12M. In FY22, a historic $22.589M was appropriated for the Initiative, bolstered by Federal funding through the American Rescue Plan.