What the Abacus Can Teach Us About Technology (And Other Valuable Lessons About Innovation and Collaboration)
The phrase “access to justice” graces the pages of legal magazines, articles, and webpages starring as the social justice issue du jour. The attention to access to justice, although as intense as a whistling teapot, has been simmering to its flashpoint for more than a decade. In 2005, over one million cases per year were rejected by legal aid organizations in the U.S. due to lack of resources1 and over the past decade, the need has remained constant.2 Yet, over the past 10 years, federal funding to Legal Services Corporation plummeted to historical lows.3 Arguably, access to justice is synonymous with the archetypal notions of our democratic judicial system — every voice that wishes to should be heard, and everyone that needs a lawyer, will be afforded one. Although ideals such as “access,” “justice,” “equality,” and “right” lay the historical foundation for how our courts approach dispute resolution, the economic evolution of the legal profession juxtaposed with the devolution of access to justice by low-income citizens led us to the access crisis that we face today. Access to justice is the modern-day bellwether of not only the health of our modern court system, but our society.
The Abacus, the Univac, and the Smartphone
Peter Drucker wrote: “Innovation opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze,”4 meaning that the best time to innovate is when there is a sign of change, not when an issue becomes an epidemic. Innovation does not necessarily have to be a flash of technology, but can be more of an inching progression that leads to an “aha” moment. After years of study, the Florida Supreme Court mandated the creation of family divisions of Florida circuit courts to more properly address the family-related cases that made up over half of all suits filed in the civil division of Florida’s circuit courts.5 After the family court divisions were formed, the Family Law Rules of Procedure were promulgated. Next, the Florida Supreme Court approved family law forms for use by the swiftly evolving majority of self-represented litigants needing simple pleadings to gain access to justice.
The access to justice breeze began rustling in the 1990s as the family court divisions were born, and innovation continued to evolve over the next two decades. In the Fourth Judicial Circuit, the administrative judge created a family division effective January 1993.6 The establishment of the division enabled the administrative family law judge to respond nimbly to changes in the law and more efficiently to needs of litigants. Along with the family divisions came the establishment of Family Court Services, also called self-help centers.7 In Duval County, Family Court Services employed multiple case managers under the supervision of a director, in coordination with the general magistrates, and the family court division. Further, collaboration with pro bono lawyers from the Jacksonville Bar Association in conjunction with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc., provided frequent self-help seminars on various family law topics. The need for court access by self-represented litigants grew exponentially, outpacing the resources in Family Court Services. At the same time, the legal needs of low-income individuals seeking assistance with family-related legal issues were outpacing resources at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc. Innovation became necessity.
The Abacus That Should Not Be Ignored
Instead of diving critically into the historical shifts that cracked the access to justice foundation, I would like to focus on how one Florida circuit judge, David C. Wiggins, addressed the ever-growing (mostly lower- and middle-income) litigant pool in family courts requiring access to the courts without representation by attorneys. Judge Wiggins was not a Microsoft beta tester. He didn’t have some magic gavel to make dockets shrink or turn pro se litigants into skilled lay advocates. His innovation was not borne in a tempest, as Drucker called it. However, he did use innovation and collaboration (the foundations for technological advancement) to improve the infrastructure and efficiency of how the clerk, the judiciary, and Family Court Services ushered pro se litigants’ cases through the court system.
In 2015, more than 1,600 individuals’ cases were processed through Family Court Services in Duval County each month. Where many family court services or self-help centers around the state offer help for a handful of types of actions, Duval County assists self-represented individuals with 23 different types of actions. The Duval County Courthouse is one of the newest facilities and boasts some of the best court technology of any state courthouse in Florida. The Family Court Services’ physical space provides live case managers and a centralized location for self-represented litigants to walk in or make appointments to discuss their case with court personnel. One of the issues is that Family Court Services is a function of the judiciary with employees oftentimes under the leadership of the city or county. Additionally, after finally completing paperwork for filing, the self-represented litigants then take their paperwork down to the clerk’s office, another completely separate entity from Family Court Services, yet, to the litigant, seemingly all part of the same process and in the same location.
Charles Bishop, director of Family Court Services in Duval County, says that where pro se litigants get caught up isn’t in completing the paperwork, but in what to do after the paperwork is filed. “Pro se’s don’t know where to look for local rules and how to navigate them or how to set a hearing by themselves. They don’t know how to get on the judge’s calendar,” said Bishop. “Technology won’t necessarily solve that.”
The use of technology, such as automated document assembly for use by the litigant or state-of-the-art court case management programs, do not address the need for substantive advice either.
How the Abacus Became the Univac
In 2006, while the burgeoning self-represented population made their way to the Duval County Courthouse, six full-time family law attorneys handled 5,000 family law applications at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc. In 2015, with the drastic cuts in legal aid funding from the traditional national, state, and local sources, one full-time family law attorney remains, and the need still averages 2,000 pre-screened family law applications per year.8
When I walked into Judge Wiggins’ chambers for my interview, I was joined by Charles Bishop and Magistrate Franklin Akel, the chief administrative magistrate of the Fourth Judicial Circuit with Judge Wiggins shortly before his July 31, 2015, retirement from the bench.
Our discussion quickly diverted from Judge Wiggins and focused on Family Court Services and how general magistrates handle the extraordinary family case load in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, specifically in Duval County. Judge Wiggins, Mr. Bishop, and Magistrate Akel led me through the fascinating journey that Family Court Services and that court administration endured since the mid-1990s. Judge Wiggins addressed the rapid increase of self-represented litigants in Duval County by forging a pathway to the court rather than building a password-protected fortress — which is what the legal system seems like to an unrepresented layperson. I learned that the three men, without great fanfare, addressed problems as they came, worked with the clerk of court, the administrative judge, and the mayor.
After his appointment as administrative judge in 1997, Judge David Wiggins began innovating Family Court Services to address the backlog of cases created by the increase in self-represented individuals seeking services from the courts. General Magistrate Franklin Akel was quick to point out, “Judge Wiggins was always attentive to listen to the needs of the individual litigants and was sensitive to our community’s gaps in services. When Judge Wiggins saw an unmet need, he determined a way for the Family Court Services to meet it, even with limited resources.” Judge Wiggins and Family Court Services staff identified uncontested matters, such as name changes, uncontested divorces (no children/no property), and sending cases to family court mediation. Partnering with the administrative general magistrate, Franklin Akel, and with the cooperation of the Florida Department of Revenue, local forms were developed in child-support modification and license revocation cases to ease the process for pro se litigants. special appointment, family court mediators were already filling a need as special magistrates in other areas of the court, so Judge Wiggins and Magistrate Akel sent simplified dissolutions of marriage between two unrepresented parties to the special magistrates to clear the backlog of cases, which allowed judges and general magistrates to concentrate on contested or complex matters.
Judge Wiggins did not speak of his accomplishments, nor did he showcase his court projects. What his rulings and Family Court Services shared in common was the reserved insight crafted over the two decades during Judge Wiggins’ tenure as administrative family court judge. Family Court Services evolved to address the growing need of unrepresented family litigants because of the leadership of Judge Wiggins — the weekly meetings between Judge Wiggins and Magistrate Franklin Akel, the mutual respect between judge, Family Court Services, magistrate, clerk, information technology personnel, and chief judge. There were so many moving parts, so many entities with different interests, yet with strong leadership and efficient management, over time, and with innovation, a need was filled that otherwise would have gone unmet. Family Court Services is an immense service to the community of Jacksonville. It grew from the early abacus of the family division in the early 1990s to the Univac of the early 2000s to the smartphone of today.
Leadership Through Innovation = Justice
Practicing in front of Judge Wiggins for almost 20 years, I learned that my experience in the courtroom, wasn’t always my result in the final judgment. He may have expressed certain emotions — bluster, impatience, or audacity, but when the judgment came down, it was full of insight and thoughtfulness. Maybe not a win for my client — but wise. He often had a quick, acerbic wit he did not hesitate unleashing upon attorneys in his courtroom if they failed to adequately prepare. It was entertaining to observe, unless you were the focus of his attention. You could occasionally catch a gleam in his eye indicating a robust sense of humor and appreciation for sarcasm. However, when his rulings regarding families and children were rendered, it was all seriousness, and it was all about what was in the child’s best interests — his wise plan ultimately revealed.
Similarly, the day I went to interview him for this article, I had an idea in mind that I wanted to get a history of his experience with pro se litigants and their access to courts through his eyes as a jurist. I presented him with my issue or, at least, what I wanted the issue to be. I wanted to showcase the legacy of his long career. He deflected the attention from himself and focused on the success of the Duval County Family Court Services and the collaborative work with Charles Bishop and Franklin Akel. Access to justice and innovation revealed itself in the incredible, long-term commitments undertaken by Judge Wiggins, the general magistrates, and Family Court Services in Duval County. As it is true with any person accessing justice, Judge Wiggins did not give me what I wanted in this interview, but what I needed.
I was able to get a few questions in at the end of my interview about memorable experiences on the bench, and with a wistful expression on his face, Judge Wiggins said, “Not many of the families came back, and I hope that means I made good rulings. I often wonder what happened to children that have gone on after I have made a decision, and where they are today. Hopefully I’ve had a positive impact on families.” As always, this modest jurist understates his role in impacting a whole generation of families in Florida.
The innovation by Judge Wiggins and Family Court Services was borne during the creation and growth of the family division of the circuit courts. The “rustling breeze,” so to speak, can be a lesson to The Florida Bar and the Access to Justice Commission. While lawyers and society are faced with the access-to-justice crisis as it stands today, we didn’t arrive at the tempest without warning, nor did smartphones fall out of the sky. They were preceded by the abacus. We have wisdom within our ranks. Those judges, such as Judge Wiggins, who with grace and humility have transformed the lives of self-represented individuals by unlocking the courthouse doors, should not just be commended and congratulated, but studied and emulated. Technology is extraordinary and can take access to justice to new heights. But innovation and collaboration in the age of limited resources implemented by sound leadership is the widespread solution to our crisis, and that is an abacus that has been around for decades.
1 Legal Services Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America, A Report of the Legal Services Corporation at 5 (2005), available at http://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/LSC/images/justicegap.pdf.
2 Legal Service Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America, An Updated Report of the Legal Services Corporation at 22 (2009), available at http://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/LSC/pdfs/documenting_the_justice_gap_in_america_2009.pdf.
3 See note 1.
4 Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship 314 (1985).
5 In re Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 588 So. 2d 586, 590 (Fla. 1991).
6 Administrative Order 92-1, In Re: Administration Provision For Family Law Division, Jan. 9, 1992, signed by Chief Judge John A. Santoro, Jr., Fourth Judicial Circuit, Duval County, State of Florida.
7 In re Amendments to the Fla. Family Law Rules of Procedure (Self Help), 725 So. 2d 365 (Fla. 1998).
8 “Pre-screened family law application” means that a person seeking legal representation has called, completed a telephonic pre-screen interview for issue and financial eligibility. This does not reflect individuals who call and make inquiries that do not complete the pre-screen procedure, which would reflect a significantly higher number, or reflect the number of cases finally accepted for representation through legal aid staff or pro bono placement, which would be significantly lower due to limited resources.
Sarah R. Sullivan is professor of professional skills at Florida Coastal School of Law. She serves on the executive council of the Family Law Section and is vice chair of the Public Interest Law Section of The Florida Bar. She teaches and practices public interest law while instilling passion for representing underserved populations in the law students she supervises.
This column is submitted on behalf of the Family Law Section, Maria C. Gonzalez, chair, and Sarah Kay, editor.