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Gregory Coleman: Closing the legal services gap
When The Florida Bar created its Vision 2016 Commission to examine the future practice of law in Florida, access to legal services was chosen as one of the four key areas.
Meanwhile, Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga had a vision of his own. One of his first commitments upon being sworn in as the 56th chief justice of the court last summer was to head a
summit addressing the issue of access to justice.
Now, The Florida Bar and the Supreme Court, in partnership with the legislative and executive branches of state government, the business community, legal aid providers and other stakeholders, are working to
make those visions a reality with the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.
The Commission on Access to Civil Justice held its first meeting in January to define its role and to learn about the need for change. Now the subcommittees have begun their work, ahead of the next general
meeting of the commission on May 15 in Tampa.
Legal aid can address only about 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income citizens, and with recent funding cuts even fewer will be served. A legal-services gap means even middle-class citizens — who
may earn too much to qualify for legal aid yet can’t afford a lawyer — face potentially life changing events such as divorce, foreclosure and landlord-tenant disputes without legal representation.
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 issue won’t be solved by attorneys alone. In fact,
“legal services” does not necessarily mean “access to a lawyer.”
As I explained when I had the pleasure of meeting with The Tampa Tribune’s editorial board recently, the commission has a wide range of options to explore.
Funding is essential, and 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
But there also is an opportunity for creative solutions.
There are ways to streamline the legal process so that representation doesn’t cost as much.
Simplified forms and online tools can make it more realistic for citizens to represent themselves on issues
such as foreclosures — much as they now do in smallclaims
An idea coming from Vision 2016’s Access to Legal Services Committee is for Florida to align itself with many other states that allow unbundled legal services — also known as limited-scope
representation — which offers access to people who can’t afford or don’t need an attorney for an entire proceeding.
Florida can learn from the 38 commissions in other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, where initiatives addressing access to justice are already in place.
The only thing that is certain is that we must find solutions.
The legal services gap affects not only the administration of justice but the business of our state.
Consider this: Nearly a quarter of women 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 finds it more difficult to escape a violent relationship, and so businesses, coworkers and customers feel the pain, too.
In Florida, 85 percent of family law cases have at least one self-represented litigant.
Citizens wander into a system designed for lawyers, and they become frustrated, anxious and depressed. Their productivity at work suffers.
In a recent study, Florida TaxWatch found that, for every dollar spent on access to justice, the business community reaps a $4 benefit.
We have a broken system.
In criminal cases, legal representation is guaranteed. But in civil cases, such as family matters, home ownership and veterans benefits, there are no guarantees.
Florida’s Constitution promises, “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.
Gregory W. Coleman is president of The Florida Bar. For more information about the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, go to flaccesstojustice.org