Federal Pass-Through Funding for Courts Supports Innovations and Equity

State courts across the country use federal dollars to help self-represented litigants, keep courts open, and improve access to justice

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Federal Pass-Through Funding for Courts Supports Innovations and Equity

This page was updated April 6, 2021 to add a link to a case study about the STOP grant and provide additional information on reimbursements for legal representation for a child who is a candidate for Title IV-E foster care and the child’s biological parent(s).

Logistical challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and a push for courts to become more equitable, open, and efficient have resulted in courts seeking new and existing federal pass-through funds. These funds, which are also called block grants, formula funds, or open-end reimbursement funds, go to state and local governments, which in turn “pass through” the funding to other local government entities and organizations. These recipients can include courts, either solely or as partners with other civil or criminal justice stakeholders such as legal aid or self-help programs.

Karen Lash, the director of The Justice in Government Project at American University and the former executive director of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, is an expert on leveraging federal pass-through funding to improve the civil legal system. With funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, she recently published a series of case studies that do a deep dive into how courts have pursued these funds, featured courts’ recommendations for others seeking funding, and looked at the impact of the funding on courts’ work.

This interview with her has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How are federal pass-through funds different from other federal funding sources available to courts?

Courtesy of Karen Lash

A: We can really simplify it by dividing federal funds into two buckets. What we call competitive grants are those for which a court would apply directly to a federal agency, such as the Department of Justice—which makes drug court grants. They’re competitive grants because local courts compete with courts from across the country for what are maybe 100 awards.

The second bucket is made up of federal pass-through funds. Although they’re federal funds, state (and sometimes local) executive branch decision-makers establish rules about who can receive the money. So states have a lot of discretion about how to spend these federal dollars locally. They operate within constraints, of course, in the form of federal statutes, rules, and guidance documents, but when it comes to disseminating the money, there’s still plenty of leeway to accommodate local priorities and administrative quirks. And, unlike the competitive grants, states (or territories, or tribes) will almost certainly get a share of these federal funds, as long they fulfill the federal requirements of the funding source.

The local focus, state-level flexibility, and reliability of securing the funding for these pass-through grants make them especially desirable for courts in terms of investing in technology tools. This funding also helps courts design innovative representation models as well as improve services for people who don’t have lawyers in court—what we call self-represented litigants.

Q: Can you give us some examples?

A: Sure. AmeriCorps grants, which are pass-through funds awarded to organizations meeting critical community needs, have supported court navigator programs in California and Illinois since 2004 and 2009, respectively. In these “JusticeCorps” programs, AmeriCorps members are trained to provide services to self-represented litigants, ranging from literal navigation (helping people find their way around courthouses or guiding them to self-help resources) to helping them fill out forms and informing them about their options. 

In Pennsylvania, a Community Development Block Grant was pivotal in establishing the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, which helps low-income tenants avoid eviction with resources such as court navigators, on-site legal staff, and same-day representation for eviction hearings. It’s a program that improves fairness and reduces burdens on courts.

In New York, a Crime Victims Legal Help web portal funded by the state’s Victims of Crime Act Victim Assistance Formula grant offers users a triage screening tool to identify legal needs; a legal service help directory, “Know Your Rights,” to help users understand their options; a referral mechanism that connects victims with legal aid partners; and a “LiveHelp” function so users can get help finding legal information in real time. STOP (Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors) Violence Against Women Formula funds have allowed courts in Alabama, Indiana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York to offer tools like e-filing, online resource hubs, and informational videos to better serve victims of domestic violence.

Q: And how about technology improvements? How do courts use pass-through funds for those?

A: Technology-based innovations funded with pass-through money have helped keep courts accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts in New Hampshire and Kansas used a portion of their states’ CARES Act allocations to pivot their day-to-day activities online with new web portals. Title IV-D, an open-end reimbursement grant for state child support programs, funds several online dispute resolution (ODR) tools in Ottawa County, Michigan, which has incorporated text reminders to noncustodial parents. Since adoption, the county reports an increase in child support collections and a decrease in the number of “show cause hearings,” in which a judge will decide to hold a parent in contempt of court for not following the child support order. The court also saw a decline in child support-related arrest warrants for failure to pay child support. The people who run the program have gone further by leveraging data and sound research methods to evaluate the efficacy of this ODR pilot.  

Q: Can courts partner with others to seek, and use, federal pass-through funding?

A: Yes, and I strongly urge courts to consider pursuing these funds with justice system partners, such as legal aid organizations. Courts can work collaboratively with these partners to find opportunities of mutual benefit. Courts and their partners can also work together to target block grants that have increased appropriations or where the state finds itself with money that if not used would be returned to the federal government.

For example, courts can partner with legal aid to use STOP funds to develop online guided interviews and what we call document assembly tools (which automate the creation of necessary legal forms), so  domestic violence survivors can fill out a protective order remotely on their own or with help from a legal aid lawyer or pro bono volunteer via a secure phone conferencing system. Another court partnership example includes a mediation program in Missouri: A Title IV-D access and visitation grant, a specific subset of Title IV-D funds, was awarded to an organization called M.A.R.C.H. Mediation to resolve parenting disputes outside of the courts. The local circuit courts direct parenting dispute cases to M.A.R.C.H. to help reach a resolution in custody, access and visitation, and child support issues. And a 2019 policy change by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now allows reimbursement to help pay for costs of legal representation for a child who is a candidate for Title IV-E foster care—or who is in foster care—and the child’s biological parent(s). That opens myriad possibilities for courts to partner with attorneys, including legal aid organizations.

The bottom line for courts and potential partners: You have shared goals. Join forces.

Q: Do you have any favorite resources for courts interested in federal pass-through funding?

A: Courts can get started with three resources: the Grants Matrix, the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) Tiny Chats, and resources from the State Justice Institute (SJI). Thanks to The Pew Charitable Trusts, my project created a Grants Matrix on the NCSC Tiny Chats website. The matrix curates the main federal pass-through funds for which courts are eligible and contains links to learn more about each opportunity.

Because the pandemic has made adoption of technology tools especially essential, the Grants Matrix also spotlights which funds can be tapped for things like telephonic and video conferencing for remote hearings, online guided interviews for court users, document assembly tools, and more.

Q: What about courts that may be interested in competitive grants?

A: They should look to SJI resources. SJI was established by Congress to award grants to improve the quality of justice and foster innovation in state courts and has a funding toolkit—the one-stop shop for everything about competitive grants, direct from federal agencies. Also helpful is SJI’s recently launched podcast, Court ¢ents, which highlights funding opportunities for courts and civil justice partners.

Q: What’s your top advice for courts reaching out to the state administering agencies to pursue these funds?

A: I’m going to pivot here and speak directly to courts. To pursue these funds, as well as competitive grants, courts have to properly staff this work, from soup to nuts. You can’t wing it. That means everything from communications with the administrator, drafting the application, to overall grants management, including accounting and compliance. It’s a heavy lift, but it’s doable and pays off.

After your court decides who will staff the outreach and management, then you need to research what funding you’ll pursue. You need to find the right person to do the initial exploratory outreach to prospective funders. That’s key, and depending on who has what kinds of relationships with the state’s executive branch, it might be a presiding judge, the court administrator, the chief justice. It’ll vary. Maybe you’ll make a strategic decision to have initial conversations at the staff level, which can help build allies who can champion your proposal to the right people.

Finally, among the lessons of the pandemic is that civil justice system stakeholders can adapt to new funding streams, additional grant management work, and technology solutions. We need to make those adaptations because we need to keep the courts open and operating effectively and fairly—both during a crisis and what we hope will soon be a new more digital normal. 

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