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The United States is plagued with a “justice gap” that leaves many Americans with unmet civil legal needs. Americans with low income do not receive the legal help they require for as many as 92% of their substantive civil legal problems. The justice gap requires many legal aid agencies to triage, becoming “emergency rooms” for clients with unmet legal needs. This national crisis calls for new innovations so that access to justice (A2J) can function more like primary care, promoting better use of resources and preventing legal crises that can cause long-lasting harm.

Medical-Legal Partnerships (MLPs) embed lawyers in healthcare teams to address health-harming civil legal needs facing low-income patients. MLPs are community-based, integrating low-barrier legal services into healthcare settings and bringing free and accessible legal services right to the people who need them in familiar places. MLPs work interdisciplinarily, training nonlawyer partners to understand and screen for legal issues; provide legal information, resources, and referrals; and advocate around problems that are often intertwined with health and well-being. Moreover, MLPs operate preventively, providing A2J in advance of a legal crisis, and facilitate structural change through a “patients-to-policy” approach. MLP scholarship has uncovered the power of lawyers to address health-harming legal needs and identified A2J as a social determinant of health.

Research shows the benefits of MLPs, including patient stress reduction, health improvements, and return on investment for hospitals and healthcare systems. The MLP literature argues for expansion of the MLP model as a healthcare innovation. Some scholars have focused on the lessons from the MLP movement for legal and medical education. For example, I have argued alongside co-authors that MLPs provide maxims for law school clinics to pursue health justice. As both a framework for health law scholarship and a movement, health justice focuses on the potential for law to dismantle subordination as a root cause of health inequities. Health justice builds the power of individuals and communities affected by health disparities “to create and sustain conditions that support health and justice.” Therefore, health justice is not just healthcare justice; it is also economic justice, racial justice, housing justice, and other forms of justice that necessitate access to legal resources to address unmet legal needs that drive health inequity.

MLPs have been promoted as a unique and promising innovation in healthcare and health justice. This essay argues that they also represent an important innovation in A2J because they offer a model that is community-integrated, preventive, interdisciplinary, and transformative. MLPs embody principles that should drive broader A2J innovation to address our country’s justice gap.

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Stanford Law Review Online, Vol. 75, 2023, 73-88.