Her Justice -
Creating a Policy Strategy for Systemic Change

For low-income women in New York City, the civil court system has tremendous influence over their livelihoods–dictating divorce procedures, setting and enforcing child support agreements, determining immigrant work authorization, and issuing domestic violence protective orders. While those with resources can hire lawyers, those without are left to navigate a complicated system on their own. That is why Her Justice, a New York-based legal services provider, connects women living in poverty with pro bono legal services for issues of family, matrimonial, or immigration law.

Putting a clear stake in the ground

Since 1993, Her Justice has operated primarily as a direct service organization. Through their work with clients, Her Justice is acutely aware of the many ways the civil legal system fails poor women in New York City. In 2019, Her Justice decided to formally expand its policy work to drive systemic changes that would improve equity and justice for women like its clients. Understory was hired to evaluate Her Justice’s past policy work, and to develop a policy agenda and accompanying two-year strategic plan.

After an assessment of past policy work, Understory recommended that Her Justice develop a policy agenda that would clearly delineate what reforms the organization will prioritize and why. Via facilitated discussions with senior leadership, Understory and Her Justice co-created a Policy Agenda, including a clear mission that set the purpose and tone of the organization’s policy work:  

Her Justice's policy work is informed by the lived experience of our clients — women living in poverty whose livelihood and well-being are often determined by the civil justice system. We work to reform this system such that it produces the most favorable outcomes for women like our clients, through processes that are as equitable, empowering, and efficient as possible.  

The agenda then lays out the policy priorities for each of Her Justice’s four program pillars: immigration, child support, divorce, and intimate partner violence. Each section provides background on the issue, describes the need for change, and takes a clear stance on the policies Her Justice will support and oppose in the interests of its clients.  

Developing a strategy around a new policy agenda  

With a new policy agenda in place, Her Justice leadership turned to developing a strategic plan for its new policy team. Guided by the policy agenda, we identified priority reform goals and concrete tactics to achieve those goals, and mapped them onto a 2-year strategic plan. We then performed a capacity analysis to inform the staffing and resource needs of the new plan.  

At every stage of the process, we worked closely with Her Justice’s executive director, senior management, and board to ensure that the strategic plan reflected the organization’s core values and that its scope was achievable and aligned with internal capacity.

Her Justice policy work takes off

The implementation of Her Justice’s policy strategic plan has elevated Her Justice’s policy work among policymakers, journalists, and other NGOs. For example, in accordance with the strategic plan, Her Justice’s policy team released its first research report in March 2021. The report focused on the negative experiences of low-income parents in child support courts, and generated momentum among judicial and legislative leadership for reforms to reduce delays, make forms more user-friendly, and improve data analysis and dissemination. The report has been cited by the New York Family Court in its report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the family court system, and it was referenced as a key data point in state judicial hearings on the need for more funding to address child support enforcement.