Opinion

Connecting those in need with the legal system

Our legal system in Florida is broken, failing citizens who are caught in what we call the “civil justice gap.”

To fix the system, we lawyers have to change the ways we define the practice of law, regulate the practice of law and partner with nonlawyers. In other words, we have to change the way we think.

Only 14 percent of people with civil legal problems obtain legal help. Only 20 percent of the needs of indigent civil litigants are being met, as low-income citizens reach out in vain to dedicated legal services attorneys who are stretched to the limit. When confronted with a civil legal problem, 30 percent of low-income Americans give up and seek no legal redress.

The list of Floridians who can’t foot the bill for a lawyer is a long one: veterans, the elderly, the working middle class, college students. We see them maxing out credit cards to get professional advice on a child custody dispute. Standing before a judge without counsel in 80 percent of divorces in Florida. Fighting to save a home from foreclosure but feeling overpowered by a professional lender’s legal team.

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, created a year ago by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in partnership with The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Foundation, is working at a fevered pitch to fill that civil justice gap.

The commission’s Interim Report, issued in October, outlines recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court. They include:

▪ Continue development of the nation’s first statewide “Triage Gateway,” which will serve as an online connector to information and resources. In an emergency, as with domestic violence, help would arrive quickly. Former First District Court of Appeal Judge William Van Nortwick explained at the last commission meeting that our goal is “to deliver clients to someone who can assist them — not necessarily a lawyer.”

▪ Revise Rule 12 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar to eliminate barriers to pro bono representation by retired judges and lawyers who live in Florida but may not be members of The Florida Bar.

The interim report also outlines key strategies still to be explored, including:

▪ Unlicensed practice of law rules. UPL is an issue when clerks of court find consumers standing at their counters asking for help in filling out and filing the proper legal forms. Clerks want to help, but they don’t want to violate UPL rules.

▪ Creation of nonlawyer “civil legal assistants,” such as those in California, Illinois and New York — akin to how physicians assistants help doctors.

▪ Creation of a “navigator” system where trained experts can direct people to resources, either through the gateway portal or outside of it.

▪ Designation of residual funds from class-action lawsuits to fund pro bono projects.

Ironically, while so many Floridians remain unserved, many young lawyers struggle to find employment and pay off staggering debts. We have an opportunity to connect young lawyers who need legal work with the people who need legal services.

Technology offers solutions. Gordon Glover, president of The Florida Bar’s Young Lawyers Division, points out that today’s young lawyer can create a virtual office without stacks of legal books or rented office space, utilizing web-based practice management software. Low overhead means lower costs for legal representation. Online legal platforms can link those young lawyers to the unserved market.

Florida’s legal profession has made a great start in addressing access to justice, and we will continue to think of new ways of doing business to fill the civil legal justice gap. The good ideas flowing from both the Bar’s Vision 2016 Commission and Chief Justice Labarga’s Access Commission can ensure affordable, meaningful access to civil justice. Not for a few, not for most — but for 100 percent of Floridians who want it and need it.

Ramón A. Abadin is president of The Florida Bar.

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