Court News - 2015
2015 Court News Events
Access to Civil Justice Commission Has Its First Meeting
by Beth Schwartz
"The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” With these words, the Florida Constitution is construed to enshrine the right to access to justice for all Floridians. But in the current environment—a time of profound social, economic, political, and technological changes, in a world regulated by increasingly complex and interdependent laws and statutes—to have meaningful access to justice, one often must have help navigating the legal system.
One of the most effective ways to navigate the legal system is to engage legal representation. In criminal cases, defendants are entitled to an attorney, and the state must provide one if defendants can’t afford one. However, in most civil cases (e.g., domestic violence and many other family law matters, home ownership, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer issues, and matters relating to veteran’s benefits, healthcare, and other governmental services), an attorney is not provided; litigants either must pay for one themselves (which is not always an option, as attorney fees in Florida run upwards of $250 per hour), or they must represent themselves.
In the past, disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income individuals facing civil matters could apply for free or low-cost legal help via legal aid services. But, over the last few years, federal and state funding for legal aid services has declined considerably, and the Florida Interest on Trust Accounts Program, which also provides funds in support of civil legal assistance for the poor, has experienced sharply reduced revenue as a result of historic low interest rates. Consequently, of the 3 million Floridians who live with incomes below the federal poverty guidelines, only a small percentage of those who need civil legal assistance are able to obtain it (it is estimated that less than 10 percent of the legal needs of low-income Floridians are being met). What’s more, many middle-class Floridians are also effectively excluded from access to civil justice because they earn too much to be eligible for legal aid services (to qualify, an individual may make no more than $14,588 annually, and the household income of a family of four may not exceed $29,813)—yet they do not earn enough to be able to afford a lawyer.
For many Floridians, then, obtaining legal representation for civil matters is often not feasible. In addition, while Florida’s state courts have been working to develop forms, instructions, and other self-help resources, and while other entities in the Florida justice system have tried, within the scope of their authority, to improve the availability and delivery of legal services, disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians still encounter obstacles when seeking meaningful and informed access to the civil justice system.
Clearly, ensuring people’s access to civil justice presents a critical challenge for the state—and it is a problem that deeply concerns Chief Justice Labarga. At his passing of the gavel ceremony on June 30, 2014, the new chief justice spoke fervently about this issue and proclaimed that one of the top priorities of his two-year administration would be Access to Justice for all Floridians. Although the dwindling funding for legal aid services brought this crisis to the forefront, the chief justice emphasizes that access to civil justice is a societal concern and that the solutions require a broad, holistic approach that depends on all segments of society, not just its attorneys and lawmakers.
At a ceremony in the Florida Supreme Court rotunda on November 24, 2014, Chief Justice Labarga signed an administrative order creating the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, a body designed to “bring together the three branches of government, the Bar, civil legal aid providers, the business community, and other well-known stakeholders in a coordinated effort to identify and remove these economic barriers to civil justice.” Urging the 27-member commission to “consider Florida’s legal assistance delivery system as a whole,” the administrative order directs members to “consider and evaluate components of a continuum of services for the unrepresented, taking into account consumer needs and preferences.” Among the components suggested are “interactive forms; unbundled legal services; the involvement of court, law, and public libraries; and other innovations and alternatives.” The order also bids the commission to “examine ways to leverage technology in expanding access to civil justice for disadvantaged, low income, and moderate income Floridians.” (Take this link to the website of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.)
The commission had its inaugural meeting in Tallahassee on Friday, January 16. After warmly welcoming the members, Chief Justice Labarga thanked them for their “commitment to working together to develop strategies for overcoming the impediments that many of our fellow Floridians face when seeking access to civil justice.” And, looking around the room, he called attention to “the remarkable skills and backgrounds and knowledge that commission members are bringing to this important endeavor” and noted that “This assemblage of leaders from across our great state offers a diversity of perspectives and expertise that will enable the commission to meet its overall goals and objectives.”
Fortunately, Florida will not have to “reinvent the wheel” in order to devise strategies for eliminating barriers to civil justice, for, as the chief justice emphasized, 32 other states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, already have Access to Justice Commissions (the first commission in the US was established in 1994, in Washington State)—so Florida is in the enviable position of being able to examine what has worked in other states and to adapt these solutions to fit Florida’s unique needs and circumstances. Vividly amplifying this point was the keynote speaker, The Honorable Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, who has played a major role in the access to justice efforts in his home state (in 2001, Texas established what has become one of the leading Access to Justice Commissions in the nation).
In addition to the keynote address, commission members were treated to a presentation on the history and role of Access to Justice Commissions, an overview of the need for such a commission in Florida, and a facilitated panel session that focused on the obstacles faced by those seeking help, the most requested areas of need, and the challenges to the justice system in responding to these needs. In the last segment of the meeting, Chief Justice Labarga announced the creation of five subcommittees (Outreach, Access to and the Delivery of Legal Services, Continuum of Services, Technology, and Funding) and named their charges and their members. He then reminded members that the commission will submit an interim report to the supreme court by October 1, 2015, and a final report and recommendations by June 30, 2016.
Thanking commission members once again for their participation in this far-reaching undertaking, the chief justice brought the meeting to a close, saying, “The commission’s success will be accomplished through our collective dedication and each member’s personal commitment to ensuring meaningful and informed access to civil justice for all Floridians. Our fellow Floridians are counting on us, and I am confident we are up to the challenge.” The full commission will meet again on Friday, May 15, in Tampa. (To watch the video of the first meeting, follow this link.)