Better civil legal resources are the key to justice for all
|Bridget mary mccormack|
Justice for all is a fundamental promise of our democracy, enshrined in our founding documents and engraved on the very building of the United States Supreme Court.
For many, however, this is a broken promise. Millions of Americans go to civil courts every year without adequate legal help or without the information they need to make their case in court.
In state courts, which handle the vast majority of the country’s disputes, 30 million people are unrepresented each year.
Most civil and family law cases involve at least one self-represented party. And the number of people with unresolved civil legal issues – around 100 million a year – is far greater than the number that comes to court.
It is not surprising that vulnerable communities face disproportionately greater risks to their families, homes and livelihoods due to civil court proceedings such as evictions, custody disputes, lawsuits for protection against domestic violence and debt collection.
It doesn’t have to be that way, but change will require disruption.
The first disruption is the recognition that not all civil legal issues and litigants need a lawyer, and that a range of services can help meet a wide range of needs.
Over the past five years, states across the country have joined the Justice for All Initiative, which we co-chair, to reinvent how they can deliver services to meet people’s civil legal needs.
Court leaders, access to justice commissions, the bar, community leaders, and members of social services and faith groups collaborated to develop a continuum of service framework to provide appropriate services. and timely, in a usable manner, to persons with civil legal needs.
The goal is to provide a framework that incorporates high-quality screening to identify a person’s needs, and then align them with the appropriate resources to identify a legal issue, get the information needed to resolve the issue, and help them resolve the issue. access appropriate assistance.
As people move through the court system, this assistance takes many forms – from self-help options to technological solutions – to help them properly prepare for court hearings.
Even as this continuum of services expands, the courts themselves must take action to remove some of the glaring barriers to access to justice.
They can dramatically simplify court forms and processes, and provide better mediation and other resolution options.
For those who cannot resolve their issues without representation, well-staffed civil legal aid providers, pro bono assistance and low-profile task representation should be available, along with affordable market-based options.
A review of the work already done shows how this framework can create resilient and responsive systems.
For example, in Georgia, we have found strong partnerships in public and legal libraries to serve traditionally underserved communities in rural and suburban communities. The state launched the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center, which has served more than 28,000 people in the past three years.
Massachusetts, along with successful upstream interventions with tax preparers and housing providers, made a simple change: They increased the hours of operation of three courthouses and, using comments and data, found that overtime can make access easier for many people, especially those who work during conventional court hours.
Minnesota has developed a specialized online portal to provide information and access to legal and community resources on a number of critical topics, including family, consumer, housing, and public benefits law. The portal, Law Help Minnesota, received over 1.2 million visitors in its first two years alone.
In Hawaii, courts have addressed the challenges of the digital divide faced by many residents of its state due to lack of internet access, especially on neighboring islands. When court cases were brought online in response to the pandemic, the state took steps to develop vital resources that were shared widely, including in public library networks, such as advice on how to ‘Access the Internet and a map of free Wi-Fi locations across the state.
In New Mexico, court closures and the rapid move to courts and online legal services have posed the risk of excluding people from the court process due to the digital divide. Working with legal service providers and the courts, the state supported telephone legal clinics to increase the number of community members who could provide legal information over the phone or in person – but at a social distance – to those who couldn’t find them online.
It also launched a project to identify and publicize Wi-Fi hotspots to enable court users without internet access or adequate data to benefit from court and community resources that are easier to find and use. online.
These are disruptive changes to the traditional civil legal system.
There should be no wrong doors when looking for help and no one-size-fits-all way to navigate the courts. With meaningful triage to match resources to needs, preventive and diagnostic legal information and referrals within communities, and remote access, we can grow our civil justice resources.
Research shows that people rely heavily on trusted intermediaries – religious leaders, medical providers, social workers, and public agencies – to seek help. These community leaders are our frontline partners in identifying and triage of legal issues and solutions.
These disruptions also create the possibility of new partnerships, improved services and vital conversations about racial equity in the justice system.
How can lawyers participate? Here are some ideas.
Individuals can work with their national justice for all initiative or similar project – or if there is not yet one, with their state high court and access to justice commission – to create resources that help individuals navigate the legal system.
They can also increase their pro bono efforts and, where self-help services are available, they can build a voluntary referral capacity for people who need to be represented.
Finally, lawyers can advocate and help draft rule changes and bills to streamline the legal process.
The pandemic has disrupted the functioning of the courts and accelerated change. And it has made the civil justice needs of so many of our neighbors even more urgent.
The time has come: the disturbance is in the air. Let us make the promise of equal justice for all a reality.
Laurie Zelon is a retired associate judge of the California Court of Appeals, Second Appeals District, and co-chair of the Justice for All Initiative, which is administered by the National Center for State Courts and the Self-Represented Litigation Network.
Bridget Mary McCormack is the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and Co-Chair of the Justice for All Initiative.
“Perspectives” is a regular article written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To submit article ideas, email [email protected]
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be construed as legal advice.