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Bar creates Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services

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'It’s an exciting opportunity and there’s going to be a lot of work'

Michael Tanner

Mike Tanner

Responding to a Supreme Court request, the Board of Governors has approved a special committee on improving access to justice.

At a March 25 virtual meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve a Program Evaluation Committee proposal to form the “Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services.”

“It’s an exciting opportunity and there’s going to be a lot of work,” said President Mike Tanner.

Tanner and President-elect Gary Lesser expect to announce committee members in the coming weeks. The first meeting is set for late May.

The Supreme Court has given the Bar until December 30 to propose recommendations, and time is of the essence, Lesser said.

“We have an opportunity here to make a significant difference in greater access to justice,” Lesser said. “We need to get going.”

The special committee’s mission will be improving the delivery of legal services to Florida consumers and “assuring that lawyers play a proper and prominent role,” according to the PEC proposal.

The move was prompted by a March 3 Supreme Court letter to the Bar.

Justices announced that they would not be adopting most of the recommendations of the court’s Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services — including proposals to test non-lawyer ownership of law firms, fee splitting with nonlawyers, and broadly expanding the work paralegals are allowed to perform.

In a letter late last year to Chief Justice Charles Canady, the Board of Governors — after months of study — wrote that the proposals “would be so profoundly transformative of the practice of law in Florida” that they should not be permitted, even on a test basis, without “clear and compelling empirical data” that they would meaningfully improve access to justice without risk to the public.

In their December 3 letter, justices reiterated their commitment to ensuring that the rules governing the practice of law in Florida not only enforce appropriate ethical standards for Florida lawyers, but also meet the needs of Floridians for timely and affordable legal services.

The court, “therefore requests that The Florida Bar provide alternative proposals to ‘improve the delivery of legal services to Florida consumers and. . . assure Florida lawyers play a proper and prominent role in the provision of these services.’”

According to the PEC proposal, the newly formed special committee will “survey past, current, and proposed initiatives to increase access to justice worldwide, assess which initiatives have produced positive results and increased access to justice, or are likely to do so based on reliable empirical data, and make specific recommendations to the Supreme Court of Florida on proposed initiatives in Florida to increase access to justice.”

The board may be feeling deadline pressure, but it could have a head start on at least one proposal, Tanner said.

When he was sworn into office last June, Tanner assigned the COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force to review the potential for an automated platform for resolving small-value civil claims of up to $1,000.

At the same meeting it approved the formation of the special committee, the board received a live demonstration of a fully automated, statewide platform that could asynchronously help unrepresented parties settle disputes, request a mediator, and file a settlement, without setting foot in a courtroom. The task force, co-chaired by Sia Baker-Barnes and Jay Kim, is expected to make a final recommendation to the board in May.

If it is approved, the proposal will be forwarded to the Florida Courts Technology Commission for further review.

Tanner said the platform might be an appropriate proposal for the special committee.

“Events have intervened,” Tanner said. “It’s my personal opinion that this should be part of that – it’s not the whole tripod, but it’s one leg.”

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