Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga took an important step Monday toward creating better access to the legal system by naming a diverse, 27-member commission to recommend changes. Floridians deserve access to legal representation regardless of their income, and too many cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent them in civil matters ranging from divorce to landlord-tenant disputes. One of the key challenges for this commission will be to find innovative solutions to raising more money to cover the cost of lawyers in civil litigation for poor and working-class residents.
The new Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice includes representatives from the Florida Bar, judges and top executives from businesses ranging from Publix to Disney. In addition to studying how to raise money for legal aid, the commission will review existing programs and ways to better use technology to help Floridians who need lawyers for civil matters but can’t afford to hire one. About 30 states have similar commissions that have helped make progress on this issue.
The Florida commission comes as the state’s legal aid societies face increasing financial pressures and cannot meet the demand for help. Federal funding has declined in recent years. The Florida Bar Foundation donates to legal aid the interest accrued on deposits made with the foundation by lawyers on behalf of clients, but those donations have declined because of low interest rates. The Legislature has allocated a modest amount of state money to legal services for the poor for more than a decade, but Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed it every year since he took office.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next week about raising a $265 limit on the Bar’s annual membership fees. But the Florida Bar opposes a proposal to increase the dues by up to $100 to help pay for legal aid, contending there have to be more comprehensive solutions. “You cannot look to the legal profession alone to solve this social problem,” Florida Bar president Gregory Coleman said Monday at a ceremony where Labarga signed the administrative order to create the commission.
The access commission will look for ways to help both poor Floridians and working families who make too much money to qualify for legal aid now but cannot afford to hire lawyers. The commission has the potential to open up the court system to Floridians who have little or no access to it now, and it has the opportunity to provide private sector solutions where the governor and the Legislature have fallen short.