Recognizing that economic disparity threatens access to a fair and impartial judicial system, Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga today issued an administrative order establishing the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice. The 27-member commission includes leaders from all three branches of Florida government, The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation, civil legal aid providers, the business community, and other stakeholders, who will work in a coordinated effort to identify and remove economic barriers to civil justice.
The commission is a result of recent efforts by Florida Bar President Gregory W. Coleman, in partnership with Labarga and Florida Bar Foundation leaders, to focus on addressing access to justice as a societal crisis that needs to be solved with concrete and creative changes in the system.
“Florida needs a coordinated effort involving all of the entities with the potential to make permanent, systemic advances to ensure that access to justice in Florida is not limited to those who can afford it,” Labarga said. “We are particularly concerned about the circumstances facing low-income litigants for whom purchasing legal representation can pose an impossible challenge. But access to civil justice is also a problem for the middle class, many of whom do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford to hire a lawyer.”
Coleman said there is a huge segment of society who make too much money to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to hire your average lawyer.
“We have a broken system right now with legal aid having severely reduced funding and a void in the court system in terms of access to justice by middle-income Americans who make too much money to qualify for legal aid but cannot afford a lawyer,” Coleman said. “These are people who are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Labarga’s order tasks the commission with studying the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income and moderate-income Floridians and with considering the state’s legal assistance delivery system as a whole, “including but not limited to staffed legal aid programs, resources and support for self-represented litigants, limited scope representation, pro bono services, innovative technology solutions, and other models and potential innovations.”
Labarga’s order notes the significant work Florida state courts have undertaken to develop forms, instructions, and other self-help resources for those going it alone in court, while calling for the examination of other potential solutions. These include “unbundled legal services,” in which the attorney and client agree to a limited scope of attorney involvement in a case, leaving greater responsibility the client so as to limit the client’s legal costs; leveraging technology in expanding access to civil justice; and maximizing resources and stabilizing funding in support of civil justice services.
At the same time, Florida lawyers are contributing significant time and monetary contributions to legal aid. Last year Bar members reported 1.7 million hours of pro bono work and $4.8 million to legal services organizations, Coleman said.
“Lawyers truly care about trying to provide services to those who can least afford them, but we cannot do it with volunteers and donations alone. I believe it is particularly important to involve the business community to bring their innovative problem solving expertise to the effort. Business leaders also have the welfare of their employees to consider. Lack of access to justice can lead to individual and family instability that will affect the workplace,” Coleman said.
Both Labarga and Coleman say the time has come for an unprecedented level of collaboration to address this issue.
“We want to build on the great work that others started here in Florida and have been working hard to implement with limited resources,” Labarga said. “Our local legal aid societies, despite resources stretched to the limit, have been there all along representing folks who would otherwise not have access to our civil justice system. Members of The Florida Bar have donated thousands upon thousands of pro bono hours to needy citizens throughout the years. We must now take it to the next level, bearing in mind that the question of access to our civil justice system is a societal question and, as such, the solution rests with all segments of society.”
The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice will be a time-limited commission but is called upon in the order to make a recommendation on the need for a permanent access to justice commission in Florida. Permanent access to justice commissions operate in 32 states and the District of Columbia, with the first commission having been established in Washington state in 1994. The American Bar Association operates a Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives to support access to justice commissions and promulgate their advances.
The study commission will submit an interim report to the Court by Oct. 1, 2015, and a final report by June 30, 2016, and will provide these reports also to the Governor of Florida, the President of the Florida Senate, and the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
The website for the commission at www.flaccesstojustice.org includes a link to the administrative order, a listing of commission members, a Q&A and a links page to other information sources. Social media links will be posted on the website homepage for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.