Comments by Robin F. Wheeler at the November 5, 2008 Hearing

 

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South Carolina Supreme Court

South Carolina Access to Justice Commission Public Hearing

November 5, 2008

3:00 to 5:00 p.m.

Comments by Robin F. Wheeler

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Madame Chief Justice. Esteemed Justices of the Court. May it please the Court?

The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission thanks the court for the opportunity to share the legal barriers facing South Carolinians living in or close to poverty levels. This past spring the Commission held seven regional hearings throughout the state. During those hearings, members of the bench, bar, service providers and general public stepped forward and publicly told their stories; some of which have been retold here today.

In some instances, commissioners heard about civil indignations. In other instances, private attorneys spoke with earnest passion about the injustices they observed. Legal services’ attorneys relayed the anguish they face on a weekly basis when trying to parse out the cases and when there simply aren’t the resources – either staff or financial – to handle the volume of requests.

Although I would like to present solutions to these barriers, I can offer only information about mitigation efforts we have taken against the barriers. From these hearings, the Commission identified 4 focus areas – (1) Education about access issues to the Bench, Bar and Public; (2) Increasing resources for Self-Represented Litigants; (3) Working with the Bar and the Law Schools to Expand Pro Bono; and (4) Enhancing Staffed Programs through Collaboration and Coordination among the programs.

After much deliberation, the Commission has reduced the work into three Committees – (1) Self-Represented Litigants; (2) Pro Bono; and (3) Staffed Programs with EDUCATION of the Bench, Bar, Service Providers and the General Public remaining a major component of each effort.

Madame Chief Justice, when, at the very first Commission meeting in September 2007, you charged the Commission with action, we responded.

Early on the Commission recognized that Self-Represented Litigants was a growing trend, both nationally and in South Carolina. With research and additional training, the Commission developed a bench guide and trained new Magistrates about working with self-represented litigants.  We are continuing to refine the Bench Guide for use in all South Carolina Courts.

We traveled to Judicial and Clerk of Court Conferences to ensure fair and appropriate response to self-represented litigants. As a result of our roundtable at the Clerk of Court Conference, we implemented a Clerk of Court Work Group to address barriers when working with self-represented litigants. The clerks identified internal barriers including not wanting to step over the line from legal information into legal advice. Once this barrier was identified, the Commission reviewed information from other states and sought counsel from a South Carolina ethics’ expert, Associate Dean Robert M. Wilcox of the USC School of Law. The clerks’ workgroup has completed signage explaining what they can and cannot do, and have completed ethics training at one of the meetings. Additionally at future clerk conferences, the Commission will ensure that this topic continues to be current.

Resulting from our involvement at the Family Court Judicial Conference, the Commission submitted a Divorce packet with forms and instructions to the Family Court Forms Advisory Committee for comments and suggestions. Many worked on this project in the beginning – especially the South Carolina Bar and South Carolina Legal Services. The Commission, in conjunction with Court Administration, diligently reviewed the forms and instructions for accuracy while also trying to convey the information in Plain English. The Commission has submitted the packet to this Court for review and comment.

National resources instruct courts to use Plain English when developing and/or revising court forms. Plain English is easier for most people to read and its proponents state that appropriate reading levels should range from fifth to seventh grade reading level. At this level, most people will be able to understand exactly what is required of them at each step.[1] Estimates indicate that poorly designed forms can waste up to 28% of staff time.[2] Plain Language forms are easier to translate and as a result, cost less to translate. They are also less likely to be improperly translated. Plain Language forms have the propensity to increase client satisfaction. When litigants understand what is required in order to enforce a judgment, they will be happier with the legal system as a whole, with or without representation. Another bonus is increased court efficiency. 

While the Commission is working to increase public satisfaction via initiatives aimed toward self-represented litigants, we have also been reviewing Pro Bono participation in South Carolina. We formed a Committee, whose purpose is to increase pro bono participation at many levels – by encouraging the South Carolina Bar’s Pro Bono program, encouraging local Bar participation, encouraging law firm commitments, corporate participation, law student participation, and paraprofessional involvement as well. Last spring, after volunteering to provide free court reporter services at a regional hearing, Ms. Mary Ann Ridenour, our court reporter today, contacted the Commission and asked how court reporters could help. The Commission responded by sending a speaker to the South Carolina Court Reporters Association statewide conference to discuss pro bono practices for court reporters in two states. The SC Court Reporters Association is working toward this goal and added a webpage[3] for access to justice.

In addition to these efforts, the Commission has been collaborating with Staffed Programs for funding initiatives to provide attorneys for indigent South Carolinians. At its last meeting, the Commission established a Staffed Programs Committee to work with staffed programs around the state to increase efficiency, collaboration and coordination of services.  

The Commission has begun its important mission to educate the Bench, Bar and the public about access to justice and changes necessary to make access a reality. With the court’s formation of our commission, South Carolina joined 26 states and Puerto Rico in a nationwide movement for an access to justice exchange of ideas and information that is so critical to the judicial process. And we respectfully request your support as we bring access to justice to all South Carolinians.

Thank you.

 


[1] What is Plain Language?  Prepared for the Plain Language Ad Hoc Committee of the Productivity and Quality Commission By William H. DuBay. Impact Information Plain-Language Services. 19 July 2004

[2] Id.

[3] http://www.sccra.com/access_justice.htm

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