by Eugene K. Pettis
In a universe where nature reveals so many examples of evolutional changes to advance survival, I have always been amazed at the fatal persistence of love bugs’ spring ritual of mating at car level along Florida’s highways.
During my travels along the turnpike, I have often asked myself: Why don’t love bugs fly just a little higher to avoid getting smashed by oncoming vehicles? Their persistence reminds me of Albert Einstein’s quote, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
But the same can be said of us all, lawyers and society in general, on our lack of meaningful response to an age-old crisis of access to justice for all citizens.
There is little doubt that there has been a long-term failure in society to establish an infrastructure to ensure that every American has access to justice.
Anyone who thinks that this is just a problem for the poor is wrong.
Half to two-thirds of middle-income Americans’ legal needs go unaddressed, according to a Stanford study. Sixty percent of Floridians seeking legal aid are turned away because of lack of funds or because they are not poor or desperate enough.
Many people within The Florida Bar and legal aid services across this state are genuinely concerned about this problem. Most responses have focused on dollars from the legal community as the solution. I think this approach is shortsighted.
There is no question that the significant drop in interest on trust account (IOTA) funds has had a tremendous impact on support for various legal service programs around the state and across this country. But this fact is just part of the problem.
An analysis of the entire dilemma shows that the widespread access to justice problem was still prevalent even at the height of funding for legal services. That leads me to believe that the solution rests with something more than additional funding from the legal profession
Society has historically left the responsibility of supporting access to legal services primarily to the legal profession. Pro bono for indigent citizens has been largely supported from contributions and legal services of lawyers. In 2012-13, Florida lawyers contributed more than $4.8 million to legal aid and more than 1.7 million hours of pro bono legal services.
Why is it that all citizens contribute tax dollars to health care needs of the poor (Medicaid) and provide a safety net (Medicare) for others? Why don’t we look solely to medical doctors and tell them to fund those needs from their personal contributions and volunteer services?
I do not accept the argument that health care is uniquely more important than access to justice. In fact, I would argue the lack of access to legal counsel leads to detrimental consequences and permeates throughout life, including one’s health, work, home life, and beyond.
I do not believe that we will fulfill our constitutional and moral obligations to each citizen of providing access to justice unless we recognize that this is a societal problem and not just a legal profession problem. Long-term solutions must involve a full societal response, including the legal profession, all branches of government, and the corporate community.
We must embrace technological advancements that will allow us to reach more people and to provide access to legal counsel without the need for costly duplication of services in every single locale.
In short, a significant part of the crisis surrounding access to justice is the lack of modernization and creativity to address the problem.
We are simply approaching this problem the same way and expecting a different result. That is the love bug mentality.
Albert Einstein also said: “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between the large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.”
I leave you with this thought: Can we truly believe in justice for all and continue to allow so many Americans to be left out?
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