TAMPA (NSF) – People needing help with divorces, foreclosures or child support could use public computers at libraries, shopping malls or courthouses as a type of legal “triage” under a proposal approved Friday by the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.
Also, non-lawyers could provide courtroom assistance to poor and middle-income people under another idea considered by the panel, the brainchild of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.
Labarga created the commission to explore ways to increase access to the courts for indigent or working-poor Floridians as financial support for legal-aid programs has shriveled over the past few years. While funding has declined, demands for court services — including cases involving foreclosure, domestic violence and child support — have increased.
At the commission’s second meeting Friday, the panel unanimously approved the creation of a “statewide gateway portal” as an entry point to enable users to figure out what kinds of legal help they need.
“The statewide portal will be a software-based access point that would be in libraries, courthouses, shopping malls that would be the point at which a person with a legal problem could go find someone to solve their problem, or even get forms or education to find out how to do it themselves,” said commission member William Van Nortwick, a Jacksonville lawyer and former appellate judge.
Individuals could access the portal through kiosks, public libraries or public computers in courthouses by the end of the year in certain areas, Van Nortwick said.
Unlike other professions, lawyers have been slow to embrace technology, said Florida International University College of Law Dean Alex Acosta. Some studies have shown that 80 percent of the legal needs in Florida are unmet.
“We could double the size of legal services. We could triple the size of legal services. We’re still not going to be able to address the need,” Acosta said. “Lawyers alone I don’t think are going to be able to fix this. Lawyers are afraid. What’s going to happen to our profession as it changes? We need to get over that fear.”
Labarga created the panel last year just days before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case about whether attorneys should foot the bill for increasing demands for legal aid through a hike in annual Bar fees. The court has not yet ruled on the issue.
The commission is also exploring whether to allow non-lawyers to accompany people to court, something that can be a daunting process, especially for those in crisis. Labarga pointed to courtroom “navigators” programs in New York and California as examples of what Florida could implement.
Labarga also praised a New York program that allows law-school graduates to take the Bar exam early if they perform 50 hours of pro bono assistance.
A wholesale restructuring of the way legal services are provided — and who offers them — might be hard for the profession to accept, Labarga conceded.
“Change is something that is very difficult. As an example, I just issued a new rule of judicial administration that requires judges to wear black robes. I’m getting resistance from some judges. They don’t like to be told what to do. I’m sorry, but we need uniformity,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult. But we’re hoping that eventually things will change and these people can have representation.”
Labarga, who came to the U.S. from Cuba as a child, kicked off the three-hour meeting by asking why access to social justice is a problem that affects all of society.
“As we have a growing wealth disparity in this country, people work harder but they’re not getting ahead. If they can’t resolve their legal problems, they will resolve it another way,” said Florida Bar Foundation President Emerson Thompson. “The appearance of justice is just as important as justice. …You have to have some place where people feel like they’re getting a fair shake. We can see what happens in a community where people think the courts or the police aren’t fair.”
Labarga used his native country’s history under a dictator “with an ugly beard and a horrible tailor” to illustrate the threat of inequality in the justice system.
Cuba and the U.S. had nearly identical constitutions prior to Fidel Castro’s takeover, the chief justice said.
“Constitutions are basically just words on paper. At the end of the day, it is up to we the people to make it work. In Cuba, it did not work because the people did not believe that the rule of law” would prevail, he said. “In this country, we expect the rule of law to be held … and when the rule of law fails, look what happened in Cuba. And right now I fear that many people in this country … feel that the rule of law is for somebody else. It’s not for me.”
The commission also discussed the importance of educating businesses about how legal problems can affect their workers as a way of getting corporations to underwrite legal aid. Also on the table: steering money left over from settlements in class-action lawsuits to legal aid organizations.
The committee will meet again in September before providing its final report in October.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.