The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Taking Aim at Solving Access to Justice

President's Page

Photo of Gregory W. Coleman, President of The Florida Bar.

Using a shooting analogy, lawyers tend to say, “Ready, aim-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim…,” and never fire, because we always want the perfect shot.

Business people, on the other hand, say, “Ready, fire, aim.” They fire the bullet, and then make adjustments. If the bullet goes in the wrong direction, they simply fire another one. That’s why business people get things done, while lawyers have a tendency to debate issues to death.

We lawyers have been talking about the access to justice crisis for years. The time has come for us to finally realize this is not a problem lawyers can solve alone. This is a societal problem, and society, in conjunction with our helpful lawyers, needs to come up with a solution.

I am proud to announce that under the caring leadership of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, we are fast-tracking the appointment of a summit of stakeholders who will create the mechanism to finally solve this problem. The commission on Access to Justice will come up with solid deliverables, not just a written report. Besides representatives from all three branches of government, both legislative chambers, the Bar, the Foundation, legal aid providers, and the clerks, crucial involvement will come from the business community.

We are in the process of inviting statewide business leaders who think outside of the box to help us solve the crisis of access to legal services, not just for the poor, but the middle class. They will be invited to the Access to Justice summit for two purposes:

• To educate our business community about the importance of the third branch of government and how the failure of their employees to access the courts drastically affects the performance of their jobs.

• To look to them for creative ideas of how to provide greater access for the poorest of our citizens.

I believe lawyers truly care about trying to provide our services to those who can least afford them. This is part of the oath we take as new attorneys. Since we are the guardians of the third branch of government, we have taken on the very heavy obligation of trying to provide justice for all and not just those who can afford it. But we simply can’t do it alone.

Many of you have read about the significant reduction in funding for pro bono legal services. The Florida Bar Foundation, the primary vehicle to gather available funds to distribute among the various pro bono legal service providers, has watched funding drop from $72.6 million per year in FY 2006-07 at its height, to $5.3 million today. The dollars are tied to the mandatory transfer of the interest on IOTA trust account money to the Foundation, and due to historically low interest rates, these monies have simply dried up.

It’s not that we lawyers haven’t tried. In addition to providing monies through trust accounts, Florida lawyers have reached into their pocketbooks, contributing an additional $5 million last year. Most importantly, Florida lawyers gave over 1.7 million hours of free legal time to the poor last year. If you use a basic rate of $200 per hour, that translates to $340 million of attorney time contributed free of charge.

Unfortunately, that’s still only making a dent, meeting 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor.

I recently read an astounding statistic: Approximately 85 percent of the family law cases in Florida have at least one pro se party. Yet, we have thousands of new lawyers who cannot get a job. There are so many creative ways we could tie these two issues together. Some law schools have turned their third year into a residency program, providing mentoring and real-life training.

Some court systems are simplifying forms and procedures, much like small claims court, to enable better and easier access for pro se parties. These are but a couple of many programs being initiated across the country.

The days for talking, studying, and reporting are over. We need to solve this problem with concrete, incremental steps. And we will.

I believe when all is said and done, Chief Justice Labarga will be remembered as the person who helped solve the access to justice problem in Florida.

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