There was an on point article recently published locally by the Palm Beach Post’s editorial staff that went in depth on access to civil justice. Coincidentally, one of our Lawtenders just spent a lot of time, prior to the release of this article, talking up the overall access to justice issues with one of the members of the editorial board, who happened to be at our Lawtender’s son’s bar mitzvah. One must wonder if any of those discussions came into play in the writing of this piece.
Judging by its interim report, released last week,, the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice is off to a good start in recommending ways to increase access to the state’s courts for “disadvantaged, low- and moderate-income” Floridians.
The commission, created by Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, called for a “statewide gateway portal” that connects existing online local, state and national legal resources that residents could access at home or on an increased number of public computers. In addition, the panel recommends allowing law professors and retired judges to provide pro bono legal services, and to draw leftover money from class-action lawsuits to help fund legal-aid efforts.
Labarga, in the 142-page report’s cover letter to the other justices, said the recommendations are a “solid foundation” to expand much-needed access to civil justice.
About 25 percent of poor people have some kind of legal need every year — amounting to more than 750,000 Floridians. Legal Aid, considered the safety net for this need, has about one attorney for every 7,569 of those low-income residents.
Worse, there is increasing evidence that more and more middle-class Floridians are unable to afford an attorney in civil matters. Often, we’re talking college-educated people who can’t navigate the dizzying terminology and complicated legal forms that it takes to handle a foreclosure, landlord-tenant or, God-forbid, divorce case.
According to the report, there is “anecdotal evidence” that a growing number of Floridians are heading to court without legal representation, mostly involving family court cases.
The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and others can’t handle it all. Aid from the Florida Bar Foundation, a primary resource, has plummeted just as demand has skyrocketed.
“This does not even take into account the many working-class Floridians who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to afford to hire an attorney,” the report said. “This is the Florida civil justice gap.”
Action by our governor and Legislature in the 2016 legislative session could be a way to solve this festering problem, but that may not happen. Only time will tell.