Middle Class Getting Squeezed Out of Courts. So What is Being Done About it?

 

Julie Kay, Daily Business Review

January 26, 2015

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Judge Marcia CookeAM Holt

Poor and middle-class litigants in Florida are increasingly showing up to court without lawyers, resulting in a significant access-to-justice problem throughout the state.

That was the consensus of a panel on “The Importance of Access to Justice to the Judiciary” held Friday at the University of Miami School of Law. The panel was part of a Legal Services Corp. half-day seminar.

Panelists included Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga; U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami; Richard Leefe of Leefe, Gibbs, Sullivan & Dupre in Louisiana; Puerto Rico Supreme Court Chief Justice Liana Fiol Matta; and William Van Norwick Jr., a retired judge from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal. The panel was moderated by Harvard law dean Martha Minow.

Cooke and other panelists said they are more concerned about the “working middle class” who are not eligible for legal aid programs like the poor.

“I have seen a lot of working middle class litigants in court without attorneys,” she said. “Where they might have had a neighborhood attorney representing them before, now they are in court alone. Somewhere the wheels have fallen off the bus for the working middle class.”

Labarga saw the same thing during his 15 years as a Palm Beach trial court judge, particularly in foreclosure cases.

“Every other case had one unrepresented party,” he said. “Today, it must be even more. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to have a foreclosure case, and the bank’s lawyer comes in all polished, well-dressed, and he knows exactly what to do, and you see a husband and wife all by themselves with a file. As a judge, you can’t say, ‘This is what you have to do so I can rule in your favor,’ but you want to.”

Labarga noted the New York Bar requires law school graduates to perform 50 hours of pro bono work before they are admitted to the bar and California allows nonlawyers to help litigants. “Here in Florida I’d get pushback from the Bar for trying that,” he said.

The governor has not been supportive, vetoing extra legal aid funding every year, panelists noted.

Legal forums and advice columns are helpful in simple situations—but not with complex foreclosure cases, noted Van Nortwick.

“We need more money to hire lawyers for the poor and middle class. That’s the sad problem,” he said.

Labarga called on “mega law firms” with hundreds of attorneys to “kick in and help out.”

Some programs exist but are not well-publicized. Cooke asked the audience how many knew lawyers could volunteer for pro bono cases on the federal court’s website.

Cooke called on her fellow judges to be more flexible when dealing with pro bono lawyers, while Labarga encouraged them to simply thank lawyers handling such cases.

“I always did that,” he said. “It goes a long way.”

Labarga is hoping the situation will improve now that he launched the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which met for the first time this month. The major initiative of his two-year administration, the commission will study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income and moderate-income Floridians.

The commission includes Gov. Rick Scott, members of the Florida House, law school deans, former American Bar Association president Martha Barnett and general counsel of Publix and Disney.

Having lawyers for two of Florida’s largest employers on board is important because they understand the difficulties of having their employees sidetracked by legal problems, Labarga said.

“I’m going to push this as hard as I can,” he said.

The situation is better in other states with so-called low bono programs to help middle class litigants, Minow said.

In Louisiana, several groundbreaking initiatives have made that state a leader in providing access to justice to all. One program seeks to mirror medical residencies, pairing recent law graduates with one-year internships representing indigent clients for a $36,000 salary. The program has been so popular that the unemployment rate for new lawyers, once 47 percent, is now non-existent. The only ones who aren’t fans of the program are some law firms that fear losing top job candidates, Leefe said.

“We think it’s a win-win,” he said. “We’ve had a great response from students.”

Additionally, Louisiana has kiosks staffed by volunteer lawyers at every courthouse and library in the state. These pro bono lawyers provide information and forms—but not legal advice—to litigants who lack lawyers.

LSC is the nation’s single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans. The organization has a budget of $365 million and dispensed about $20 million in grants last year to Florida legal aid programs, including two in South Florida.

Julie Kay can be reached at 305-347-6685.

Read more: http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/id=1202716142877/Middle-Class-Getting-Squeezed-Out-of-Courts-So-What-is-Being-Done-About-it#ixzz3Q2t0TdSN

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