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This is a time of enormous creativity and innovation in civil access to justice. It is now widely recognized that scarcity is reality in the provision of legal services and that overburdened and technologically retrograde courts are struggling to meet the demands of case processing in a fair and efficient manner. Accompanying the proliferation of various interventions is a growing call for empirical research on civil access to justice. Recently, the idea that law school clinics might serve as sites or architects of a civil justice research agenda has been advanced.

Building on these proposals, this Article suggests that “court watch” research, involving live field observation of court proceedings, may serve as an ideal point of entry for law school clinics to participate in the advancement of evidence-based civil justice policy. While most civil justice research focuses on the retrospective review of written decisions, numerous issues—including the conduct of judges, the challenges faced by unrepresented parties, and the disconnect between the law in action and the law on the books—can only be studied through contemporaneous observation of live hearings. Additionally, court watch research can yield important pedagogical benefits that serve law school clinics’ dual teaching-service mission. Accompanied by reflection and discussion, court watch research have the potential to expose law students to a broad swath of justice issues, acculturate students to the norms and habits of court actors, and introduce students to the study, design, and critique of institutional systems.

GW Paper Series

GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2018-44; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-44

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