By Jan Pudlow
On one day in Miami, 35 volunteer attorneys spanned across seven courthouses to observe self-represented litigants and record what they found.
Eleventh Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto shared their findings, when the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice met in Miami June 2, calling it “the first step in a much needed study of the pro se litigants in our courts.”
Here are the findings of that (March 20) day’s 190 cases — family, child abuse, neglect, abandonment, domestic violence, and civil cases — involving 277 individuals, from Everyone Counts Day, conducted by The Florida Bar Foundation:
• Overall, 63 percent of litigants had no attorney and represented themselves in court proceedings. The remaining 37 percent were represented by attorneys.
• Looking at the cases as a whole, only 12 percent of the cases observed that day had attorneys representing both sides.
• The area of law with the highest number of self-represented litigants was domestic violence. Of the 35 domestic violence cases observed that day, 88 percent of the litigants had no attorney and represented themselves in court.
• In family court, 62 percent of the people were not represented by an attorney.
• The picture was markedly different in civil cases involving consumer and money matters, such as contract disputes, credit card debt collections, foreclosures, and injury cases, where 37 percent of the individuals had no attorneys and represented themselves, while the remaining 63 percent had attorneys present.
“This data represents an important segment of our community. Those who have matters of great importance to their lives need to be heard in our court systems, yet they do not have lawyers to help them navigate complex laws and court procedures. It is our moral and constitutional obligation to ensure that everyone has access to justice,” Chief Judge Soto said.
“The data provided by Everyone Counts Day will prompt meaningful discussion among the members of our commission. It will guide us toward solutions to increase access to everyone, including the majority of people who come to our courts unrepresented.”
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, who created the commission, said he was glad it was meeting in Miami, and shared some of the challenges to access that are more dramatic than in other areas of Florida.
“Today, while we are here in Miami, I want to talk about a few barriers that are unique to South Florida, but are heightened here in Miami,” Labarga said.
“Money, transportation, and language too often limit access to civil justice and pose challenges that are particularly acute in Miami. United Way of Florida issued a study in 2015 that described a growing population of the working poor — those who are above the official federal poverty line or are employed but still not making it,” Labarga said.
“Often in Florida, and especially in Miami, that is because of how much it costs living here. Housing costs are high. Transportation costs are high. The United Way study found that in Florida, 44 percent of households had an income below what it takes to afford the basic necessities: housing, food, and transportation.
“In Miami, it’s almost three-quarters; 72 percent were either in poverty or making less than needed for the very basics. For these working poor people, access to justice is vitally important. Life events that require access to justice are often the tipping point for people on the financial edge,” Labarga said.
“A medical emergency can throw them into bankruptcy. Divorce can take away whatever slim hold they had on economic survival. Domestic violence disrupts lives in ways that can’t be seen in a medical examination.
“For these working poor people in Miami, access to justice is not a luxury. It is about survival. This is true for transportation issues. Access to justice is a broad issue, and there are many challenges we must consider. Miami recognizes the transportation disadvantaged and makes an effort to improve a difficult situation. A sprawling urban area, however, means the working poor can only afford to live at a distance from jobs and often courthouses.”
Beyond those barriers to access to justice, Labarga said, is the great challenge of language.
“Access to justice must address language barriers,” Labarga said. “In Miami-Dade County, more than 1.8 million people live in a household where a language other than English is spoken at home.”
The majority speaks Spanish, but many thousands more speak Haitian Creole, French, Portuguese, and other languages, he added.
“The challenges of providing credentialed interpreters are real,” he said. “We work hard every day to address this challenge. Florida’s courts have certified 321 court interpreters. In less than three years, nine court interpreter certification workshops saw 617 people attend. About 270 candidates took the written exam, and 237 took the oral performance exam. In addition, Florida courts are making great strides in the use of technology to provide remote court interpreting services as well.”
“A judicial system must provide access to all, to be truly just,” Labarga said. “Justice that depends, for example, on how much money a person has is not real justice.”