New Order, New Commissioners, Happy New Year!

This has been a whirlwind autumn and it’s hard to believe it’s already 2015! I hope everyone had a safe and happy new year.

The SC Access to Justice Commission has undergone a recent overhaul. On October 20, 2014, the Chief Justice issued a new Administrative Order for the Commission. The changes ensure that Commissioners represent a broader scope of judges and attorneys, while imposing term limits so that we don’t overstay our welcome with our Commissioners, who already volunteer their time and talent.

In keeping with a new order, we have new Commissioners. Click here for a list.

Stay tuned for updates on our initiatives.

Many thanks to all of you who support access to justice!

~rfw

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It’s official – Poster and FAQs online – en español

Good News!  ¡Buenas noticias!

The South Carolina Courts’ Self-Help Page now offers FAQs (General Questions, Circuit Court and Family Court) and an explanation about what court staff can and cannot in Spanish!

And many thanks to student volunteers with the USC School of Law’s Pro Bono Program and the kind folks at HABLA!

-RFW

Report of the Task Force on State Courts and the Elderly Released

Today the Supreme Court of South Carolina released the Report of the Task Force on State Courts and the Elderly.

It is well worth reading, if only to note how South Carolina demographics have changed over the years and to see predictions for our future.

Well done!

-RFW

Chief Justice Toal Presents . . .

Recently Chief Justice Toal of the Supreme Court of South Carolina delivered two important speeches; one to the SC Bar at their annual convention at Kiawah, and one to the SC House Ways and Means.

The takeaway? The financial crisis is taking its toll on the efficiency of the courts. While this may seem like a “duh” moment to many and a “d’oh” moment to others, the repercussions to access to justice could be devastating.

Let’s support our courts and keep access to our courts.

-RFW

Do we need more Family Court Judges in SC?

This is the question that recently arose in New York.  According to this post, the New York State Senate Judiciary Committee recommended immediately adding 21 family court judges to the bench. The Committee’s full report is available here.

Interestingly, the reason for the increase is an increase in need due to layoffs, consumer credit, housing problems, crime, and constrained social services as well as an increase in self-represented litigants (SRLs). It is fairly well-established that SRLs typically take more time in the courtroom than those represented by counsel. And reasons vary – many SRLs are not familiar with rules of court; they want to tell their whole story in court – not simply the “relevant” parts; and they may become more emotional because they’re not only living the part of the litigant, but also increasing their stress by acting on their own.

Add to that an increased need and you have clogged courts, aka decreased access to justice.

New York recognizes the need for more Family Court judges as does the representative from the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

What about South Carolina? Do we need more Family Court Judges? Take a look at two slides from the Chief Justice’s 2009 State of the Judiciary, slide 12 and slide 13.

Now imagine an increase in the number of filings, say, by 10%.

In Family Court, that would be approximately 7,500 more cases in the year. With approximately 260 workdays per year with 8 hour workdays, that would average 3.6 cases per hour – without time for administrative tasks or completing paperwork.

Now add in extra time for cases in which interpreters are needed. Either American Sign Language (ASL) or Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

What do you think? Do we need more Family Court Judges?

-RFW

SRLs: The Good, The Bad and The Reality

Writing about Self-Represented Litigants is not as easy as it appears.

Sure, I wholeheartedly believe that every U.S. citizen has a right to be heard in court. And sometimes there simply isn’t an attorney available or willing to represent everyone. So, the alternative is appearing by oneself, as a Self-Represented Litigant or pro se.

But my training and experience lead me to conclude even though each of us has a right to appear on our own, it isn’t always in our best interest.

Ideally every person would be entitled to representation by an attorney who is familiar with the specific area of law.

Attorneys are trained to review the facts, both subjectively, objectively and as they relate in law. Areas of law differ greatly but all attorneys are skilled in research and reviewing information. By hiring attorneys clients hire an objective fact reviewer as well as a reviewer of existing law and potentially policy-makers.

About this time, you’re thinking, why did she say this topic isn’t easy? Because as an attorney, I’m torn.

As with most legal issues, there are always shades of gray. Most of us view the world in black and white, right and wrong. As attorneys, our training (3 years of law school plus our practice and life experience) reveal the shades of gray. The pieces that may be right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons.

I recognize that with each legal form that is created, some people will forgo consulting with an attorney. These individuals will not receive the wisdom, many times in the form of questions, from the attorney. This will potentially leave them vulnerable.

Scenario 1: Someone married to someone with a pension MAY have rights to that pension. But they’re so unhappy in the marriage. They sign papers without consulting an attorney. Maybe they’re currently in good health with a good job. But, what happens if they are seriously injured in a car wreck and no longer able to work?

Scenario 2: Same as before except: What happens if they move forward with their lives, without tragedy? Simply pleased to have a failed marriage behind them.

Each U.S. citizen has a right to both scenarios. And it’s the second scenario that allows me to continue to advocate for resources to assist people who want to represent themselves.

But it isn’t always easy because the first scenario is always in the recesses of my mind.

Scenario 1 in the recesses of my mind
Scenario 1 in the recesses of my mind

And I can do my best to ensure that at least the forms and resources provided to them is accurate and complete and not out there to take advantage of them.

-RFW

Fyi, for another perspective on Self-Represented Litigants, check out Rebecca Woodworth Brodie’s opinion piece entitled The Rationing of Justice: LAR, DIY attorneys and pro se.

Tennessee latest to add Access to Justice

On Friday, December 5th, the Tennessee Supreme Court announced an Access to Justice Initiative. Chief Justice Janice Holder offered a few remarks as to outline measures of the initiative as well as some general information as to the necessity of the initiative.

Only one in five income-eligible people will receive the legal help they need.

In our current troubled economy, the need for civil legal services among Tennessee’s indigent and working poor families can only be expected to increase as they face more legal problems caused by unemployment, predatory loans, uninsured medical bills, domestic violence, evictions, and foreclosures.

We send our best wishes to Tennessee with this initiative and offer our support. Congratulations and welcome aboard!

-RFW