Op-Ed

Improving access to justice in Florida

TNS

Think of the civil legal matters that could threaten to tear apart your life: divorce, child custody, foreclosure, a landlord-tenant dispute. Then realize that many people are thrown into these life-changing events without legal representation.

Legal aid has only been able to address about 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income citizens and with recent funding cuts even fewer will be served. Many more Floridians — those who earn too much to qualify for legal aid and yet can’t afford an attorney — are caught in a legal services gap.

Now, something is being done about the problem.

In late November, the Florida Supreme Court established the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, to study this legal services gap and to find answers.

The Florida Bar will actively participate in the work of the commission and provide staff support and services, along with the Office of the State Courts Administrator.

The Florida Bar Foundation will also be an important partner. The first meeting of the commission is Jan. 16.

Our Florida commission will have a head start in its search for solutions learning from 32 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, where similar initiatives addressing access to justice are already in place.

We will also focus on expanding what our Florida courts already have done to simplify forms and processes for people who choose to represent themselves, by seeking innovative technology solutions, as well as identifying additional funding sources.

Even more exciting would be discovering solutions never tried before.

The 27-member commission includes members of the legal community, but more important, it also includes representatives of government and the business community, from Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi to executives at Disney, Publix Super Markets and food distributor Cheney Brothers.

The legal-services gap affects every citizen in our state, and the experience of elected leaders as well as Florida businesses in developing solutions to problems is unparalleled.

When employees face tremendous personal challenges, businesses and, ultimately, our economy can suffer. Here is one sobering example: Nearly a quarter of female workers say that domestic violence has affected their job performance at some point, and every year, businesses lose about 8 million days of paid work because of domestic violence. A woman in the legal-services gap cannot afford the assistance that can be essential to escaping from a violent relationship, and so businesses, coworkers and customers feel the pain, too.

Last year, Florida lawyers reported 1.9 million hours of pro bono work to The Florida Bar and more than $4.8 million in donations to legal services. But this is not an issue that can be solved by volunteer attorneys alone.

The solution must include additional financial support, as well as collaboration among the legal profession, the courts, the Legislature, Legal Aid and its funding organizations and social-service agencies.

We also want to recognize and emphasize the importance of the work already being performed by The Florida Bar Foundation and its army of volunteers who work tirelessly with limited resources to fund the critical legal needs of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens. Additionally, we want to recognize the hard work of local legal-aid providers throughout the state who dedicate their lives to serving the legal needs of the poor. They are truly some of the most impressive lawyers in the state.

The root of the access to civil justice problem is that we have a broken system.

In criminal cases, legal representation is guaranteed. But in civil cases, like family matters, home ownership, landlord/tenant and veterans benefits, there are no guarantees.

Florida’s Constitution promises that “The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury.” The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice has the potential to bring that fairness to civil proceedings and change the lives of Floridians for the better.

Jorge Labarga is chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Gregory W. Coleman is president of The Florida Bar. To learn more about the Commission on Access to Civil Justice, go to www.flaccesstojustice.org

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