Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

You may wonder what Climate Change has to do with Access to Justice. And at first glance, it may not seem to have a connection. But when you consider the potential negative effects of Climate Change such as lack of clean water supplies and more natural disasters, the connection becomes less tenuous.

Consider clean water. If Climate Change impacts clean water supply, it is likely that costs of water purification will rise even if the demand remains constant. This would impact people living in poverty such that not only would they be less likely to have access to the clean water, but their health may be at risk. With many people in poverty already living without health insurance, the numbers of unhealthy poor people will be expected to rise. With people paying a premium for water, simply for sustenance, they are less likely to be able to afford legal assistance.

Now consider increasing natural disasters. The entire U.S. nation watched Hurricane Katrina unfold. Who suffered most in this historic natural disaster? People living in poverty. They were less likely to be able to transport their families and themselves out of harm’s way. Even if they were able to do that, they were less likely to have home insurance. Less likely to have skills necessary to relocate to another location where their job skills would easily translate into a new/different job.

As stewards of this planet, we need to consider how our actions affect not only ourselves, but our neighbors as well.

As noted on the front page of Blog Action Day: Climate change affects us all and it threatens more than the environment. It threatens to cause famine, flooding, war, and millions of refugees.

Isn’t it time we consider our actions?

-RFW

Should 3Ls Provide Legal Representation: POLL

Read about a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that allows 3rd year law students to represent Felony Defendants UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF A LICENSED ATTORNEY!

The Rule.

Please feel free to add your own comments either within the poll or below.

Does this enhance access to justice? Or does it further disenfranchise people living in poverty?

-RFW

PS – Thanks to Commissioner Rangeley Chewning for pointing out the Ohio article!

Economy Impacts California Access to Justice

Budget cuts in California cause the state’s Judicial Council to decide to close the third Wednesday every month from September 2009 to June 2010, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times and confirmed by a press release from the California Courts.

While many of us in South Carolina may not tend to notice what happens in California (after all it’s on the “other” coast and several hours away by plane), this signals a tough time for us as well.  We look to California for trends; and for those of us in access to justice, we often rely on California for these trends. They provide the fertile classroom from which the rest of us glean ideas and then adapt them to fit our own state’s needs.

(Aside to the Other 49 States:  We learn from you as well and occasionally you learn from us, but c’mon, truthfully, don’t many of us look to California for ideas? Really?)

California has been a national leader in working with self-represented litigants (SRLs); creating a vast library of plain language forms, working on unbundled legal representation, and developing information in multiple languages. Additionally JusticeCorps has taken off in California, and has been successfully providing information to SRLs in five counties for some time.

California has offered bilingual court service for many years;  and information in many languages for a while as well.

And, according to the press release, the California Courts are the largest court system in the nation.

So how does this impact ACCESS TO JUSTICE?

By closing the courts one day per month, the third branch of government will close itself to its constituents. According to the LA Times, Chief Justice Ronald M. George noted that “the closures would result in delays in trials and more crowding in jails. Inmates who might have been released on the third Wednesday of the month will have to wait until the next day.” The hope is that the one-day closing will prevent additional closings.

California Courts – the nation’s courts are watching. We wish you the best!

-RFW

This American Life Features SRLs

Just posted this on Twitter, then realized, why not add to the Blog?

On this site, you’ve read about Self-Represented Litigants or SRLs numerous times. And, last December, SCETV’s The Big Picture featured Access to Justice with a focus on SRLs. This week, NPR’s This American Life features SRLs in their episode #385 entitled “Pro Se.”

Should be interesting. I’ll be tuning in!

-RFW

Day 1: Equal Justice Conference

Jeff from Wisconsin
Jeff from Wisconsin

See Jeff‘s Big Smile? It’s due to the announcement of the establishment of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission – TODAY!

2009EJC 002

Just a few more minutes before Sue Talia’s session starts. Lots of networking going on.

2009EJC 004Cheryl Zalenski just about to sit down as Sue Talia starts the discussion about Limited Scope Representation aka Unbundled Legal Representation.

2009EJC 005The Unbundled Discussion continues!

2009EJC 006And more . . .

2009EJC 009Everybody’s listening and is happy!

2009EJC 011Introducing Sharon Browning and the National Celebration of Pro Bono – October 25-31, 2009. The website is relatively new and has TONS of useful info. Check it out here. And while you’re there, sign up for the updates.

2009EJC 016Steve Scudder provides more details about the Celebrate Pro Bono event.

I can’t wait for Day 2.

-RFW

Social Justice

Yesterday I had the distinct honor and pleasure to present South Carolina Access to Justice to Professor Susan Kuo’s Social Justice class at USC School of Law. I was pleased to share video from the Commission’s public hearings as well as field questions from the students.

If you’re interested in viewing my presentation, click here.

-RFW

Quetzaltepec Mixe in the courtroom?

At the past year’s ATJ public hearings, I learned  how pervasive the language-barrier can be in a courtroom.

South Carolina law mandates foreign-language interpreters in court proceedings. Spanish and American Sign Language interpreters were two of the most needed within the South Carolina court system.  Court interpreter certification, compensation and procedural mechanisms for obtaining a court interpreter are several of the issues that have been raised in working towards the goal of creating easy access to much-needed court interpreters.

Another issue that arises in the context of court interpreters is when a party to a proceeding does not speak English, it is useful to have multiple interpreters in the courtroom to ensure a fair proceeding.

The state of California also mandates foreign-language interpreters in courtroom proceedings.

California’s court interpreter assignment operation has over 100 languages represented by its interpreters.  The court has less stringent standards for more unusual languages, but this article I found in the L.A. Times illustrates the great lengths some CA courts have gone to in order to provide the appropriate interpreter to a litigant.

The article also does an excellent job of highlighting many problems faced by litigants who are not provided with the appropriate interpreter in courtroom proceedings. Not only are these litigants unable to articulate answers to questions and fully present their side of the story, but judges and attorneys can become impatient when litigants have problems answering simple questions, and court transcripts are usually only in English, so the potential for a miscarriage of justice because of a simple translation error increases.

Nonetheless, no case in CA has been thrown out because an interpreter was unable to be found.

While it is unlikely that a litigant in a South Carolina courtroom will need a Quetzaltepec Mixe interpreter anytime soon, SCATJ, in conjunction with court administration and other players have taken the need for courtroom interpreters seriously and have been working diligently to resolve many issues surrounding the provision of court interpreters.

-Alex

Domestic Violence: Active in the Courtroom

This story comes straight out of Broward County via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Yesterday a man in court for domestic violence charges attacked his ex-girlfriend in the courtroom. The judge, Judge Ian Richards, leapt over the bench to help restrain the defendant from further damage to the victim. To watch the video, click here.

Domestic Violence is one of the many types of cases occurring in civil court system around the state and the nation.

-RFW

Many thanks to Amelia Waring for pointing SC Access to Justice toward the link.

Three Amigos . . .

Late last Thursday I had the honor and pleasure to moderate a panel about Access to Justice at the Charleston School of Law as part of their Professionalism Series. Of course anytime that access to justice is recognized as important in the legal field, I’m always thrilled, but this offered me a chance to listen to others.

Many people at the Charleston School of Law worked hard to make our presentation a success, especially Abby Saunders, Graham Ervin, The Honorable Robert S. Carr and Sean, our media guru. And many thanks to the students who listened intently and came up afterwards to ask questions.

Fortunately I was familiar with those I was moderating, all of whom are SC Access to Justice Commissioners – Jennie L. Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation; The Honorable Deadra L. Jefferson, Resident Circuit Judge for the Ninth Judicial Circuit; and Stuart M. Andrews, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.

allow-me-to-introduce

Ms. Stephens presented information about her work including a video clip from the Center’s informational video. If you are not already familiar with the Center, please check out their website. They have lots of valuable information and define the term “Heirs’ property.”

Heirs’ property is the name given to land that is owned by a group of family members who are the descendants of the original purchaser. The deed to the land is registered in the name of a deceased family member. Usually, the property has passed to each new generation through the State’s intestate laws. With each new generation, it is likely that family members may die without leaving wills stating who should inherit their share of the land.

Judge Jefferson offered perspective from the bench. Her words were inspirational and thought-provoking. I really appreciated the reference to Charles Hamilton Houston‘s quote that a lawyer’s either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society.” Additionally, Judge Jefferson reminded us that attorneys are often the first face of justice and that laws are not enacted for the benefit of a few.

Mr. Andrews completed the presentation by reminding the students and the speakers why it is necessary to have an access to justice initiative. He noted that according to an ABA study, over 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income individuals are not met. He also presented a snapshot of Pro Bono by South Carolina Attorneys in 2006 (below).

sc-bar-pro-bono-program-2006

Every day I am grateful to work with so many dedicated and driven individuals; individuals such as the three commissioners outlined here. And I wanted to take a moment to thank them as well as the unspoken heroes at courts, and legal and social non-profits around the state.

Thank you for working to improve the system.

You are appreciated.

And your work is important.

-RFW

More SRLs: Are Lawyers too Costly or Simply Sign of Hard Times?

That’s the question coming out of Connecticut this week, see Connecticut Law Tribune article here. Whatever the answer, the numbers of Self-Represented Litigants or SRLs is on the rise. The trend isn’t limited to Connecticut either. Recent conversations with family court judges, clerks of court and masters-in-equity have indicated that South Carolina is also part of the trend.

The challenges faced by other court systems also mirror what is happening in South Carolina. SRLs are not familiar with procedures to meet minimal requirements such as notifying the other party or service of process. Even if they meet procedural requirements they may not understand some of the documents themselves. They may not even complete all the necessary forms.

Additionally, attorneys have a reputation for using their own language, also known as legalese. The phrases in legal documents often are in Latin, not English. The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission is working with the courts to ensure that court documents are written in Plain English whenever possible.

Clerks of Court in South Carolina have also noted the rise in SRLs. Members of the public often ask for forms, then ask for help completing them. Or they may ask for advice from the clerk of whether to bring the action. Clerks are wary of responding – not because they don’t want to help, but because they don’t want to overstep into the practice of law – the unauthorized practice of law. In South Carolina, there are established laws indicating that only attorneys licensed in South Carolina may practice law in South Carolina. Legal advice is considered the practice of law. The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission is also working to address this question by developing signage clearly indicating what clerks can and cannot do. And the Commission is working with a clerk of court work group to educate clerks and the general public about the fine line between advice and information.

Judges note that they too have ethical dilemmas. When SRLs appear in their courtrooms and miss relevant pieces of their cases, the judges want to help but they too have boundaries. They may not help one side to the detriment of another.

SRLs have arrived and South Carolina is working to address the issue of increased numbers of SRLs in the courts.

But it may take a little while.

Thanks for your patience.

-RFW