Access to Justice: South Dakota Style

Below is an excerpt from the South Dakota State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice David Gilbertson on January 12, 2011. As with Iowa’s excerpts, this pertains to access to justice for people with low-income or those of modest means. Of note – service to self-represented litigants (SRLs).

ACCESS TO THE COURTS BY THE UNDERPRIVILEGED

A Chief Justice from another state told me that 70% of the divorces in her state are now done by people attempting to represent themselves. We have an increasing number of our citizens who cannot afford to hire an attorney even if one is available in their area. Yet these citizens need and deserve access to our courts. We have worked with the Access to Justice Program of the State Bar to encourage attorneys to provide free legal services to those who need them. Currently there are 275 attorneys who have agreed to do so, an increase of 100 attorneys from last year. This number, while impressive, falls significantly short of the existing need.

Our Unified Judicial System has created many legal forms for those individuals who for various reasons, economic and otherwise, will be representing themselves in a judicial proceeding. At this point the forms deal with domestic relations issues such as divorce, name changes, and child support. Many of these forms are available free on the Internet at the UJS website, http://ujs.sd.gov/, or for a small fee at any Clerk of Court’s office. We hope to expand their scope and availability in the future.

-RFW

Access to Justice: Iowa Style

Below are excerpts from IOWA State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice Mark S. Cady on January 12, 2011. Unfortunately some of these access to justice issues noted by Chief Justice Cady resound here in South Carolina. For the entire text, click here.

Iowans cannot have the hope of justice without having access to justice. The grim reality is that more and more Iowans with legal problems are forced to wait too long for their day in court. These problems are troublesome to litigants and shake people’s confidence in our government. These problems result from a decade of fiscal austerity coupled with Iowans’ growing demands for court services.

This situation is not new. It has been raised in the past. Thankfully, you and the governor responded to our concerns last year and provided sufficient funds to prevent further cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. For this action, we are grateful. Like a thumb in the dike, however, this action was merely a temporary fix. It did not halt the continued erosion of court services. The situation grows worse day-by-day.

For example, in the past year, the number of clerk of court offices forced to operate on a part-time basis increased from 26 to 30. Staff reductions are so severe that at times some of these offices must close for business without notice due to unanticipated employee absence. The remaining clerk of court offices operate a full day, but are closed to the public for four hours a week to give employees periods of uninterrupted time to pare down the backlog of work. In addition, it has become increasingly difficult for our juvenile court officers to give troubled children the close, personal attention they need. Also, judicial rulings are delayed because of a lack of clerical support and court reporters.

I will briefly review how we arrived at this critical juncture.

From 2001 through 2009, in response to the state’s fiscal problems, the judicial branch like most components of state government had to cut its budget. During those years, the judicial branch cut its budget five times―and each time the cuts were deep. Unlike many state agencies, nearly all of our operating costs are for people―employees and judges. This means that budget cuts almost always require further reductions in our workforce. The end result: our staffing levels have dropped a staggering 17% in the last decade.

Today, Iowa’s court system operates with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987. In contrast, over the same period, the total number of legal actions brought by Iowans and Iowa businesses has nearly doubled. In short, Iowa’s courts are overrun with work, and Iowans are paying the price with reduced access to justice.

Our ability to deliver court services and resolve litigation to the extent that we do is a tribute to the strong work ethic and indomitable spirit of our judges, magistrates, and court staff. Unfortunately, the admirable efforts of our judges and employees cannot totally shield Iowans from the effects of the past decade of budget cuts.

-RFW

Clerks of Court Plan for Public Access

The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission’s Clerk of Court Work Group met on Friday, September 26, 2008, to discuss ways to implement access to the courts without crossing ethical boundaries. Dean Robert M. Wilcox of the USC School of Law provided ethical training for the clerks including a Q&A session.

Q&A with Dean Wilcox
Q&A with Dean Wilcox
Dean Wilcox discusses ethics
Dean Wilcox discusses ethics

Dean Wilcox noted that ethical guidelines have been put in place to protect the public from advice that causes them to rely on and change their legal position. He cited a few legal cases and also gave practical information to the clerks.

Clerks discuss issues 9-26-08
Clerks discuss issues 9-26-08
Ethics - Serious Topic
Ethics - Serious Topic

Afterward, Robin Wheeler and Stephanie Nye provided updates about signage to post in the courthouses and the Frequently Asked Questions survey.

 

Robin Wheeler discusses progress on signage
Robin Wheeler discusses progress on signage
Stephanie Nye gathers the FAQs
Stephanie Nye gathers the FAQs

During lunch, the clerks divided into two subgroups – Circuit Court and Family Court. In each of these subgroups, the clerks discussed next steps and initiatives.

Circuit Court subgroup discusses important issues
Circuit Court subgroup discusses important issues

 

Family Court subgroup discussion
Family Court subgroup discussion
The group will continue to meet and discuss access for all South Carolinians.
-RFW