Massachusetts Releases Interim Report on Access to Justice

Just last month, the Massachusetts Court System released its  Interim Report on Access to Justice Initiatives (Massachusetts), specifically initiatives in the Trial Court. This initiative is not to replace the work of their Access to Justice Commission, but to enhance it, as noted in the report itself.

Much of their work mirrors what we in South Carolina are doing.

They are reviewing progress in other states:

  • looking at developing forms and interactive websites for self-represented litigants;
  • reviewing implications and feasibility of limited scope representation aka unbundled legal services;
  • exploring ways to develop court service centers;
  • increasing access to the courts for those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

They are reviewing challenges within their current system:

Their consensus? Action toward providing:

  • services for court users with limited or no English language skills, including staff who can speak and read other languages,
  • instructional materials in other languages, and court forms in other languages;
  • technology, including wireless (internet) access in courthouses, MassCourts public access, and court forms that can be completed on-line;
  • self-help centers and materials; and
  • child care centers.

What’s fascinating? This came about through a survey to court personnel. Often we hear that the government is full of bureaucratic red tape.

What’s encouraging? That this very government is working to make the process easier for us to navigate – during a time of economic crisis.

Kudos Massachusetts! We’ll be watching your progress and wish you well throughout the process.


Dallas News: Immigrants with Mental Illness

Appropriate treatment is difficult for most who live with serious mental illness. Often treatment is relegated to the detention system instead of appropriate community or in-patient facilities.

Just take a look at recent posts out of Iowa,  Las Vegas, Ft. Lauderdale, and Lakeland.

But if you’re an immigrant in the U.S., it’s almost impossible to find appropriate treatment, at least according to an article by the Dallas News.


They get limited mental-health care while in detention, advocates say – and that’s only if they’re diagnosed. They aren’t entitled to competency hearings before standing trial. And the majority of them face judges without legal counsel, and with little recourse to defend themselves from deportation.

. . .

“We are continuing to work … to improve the services and the availability of health care to those in our custody,” said Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But immigration court officials acknowledge there’s little guidance for how to handle mental health once these detainees come before a judge. Although judges can’t accept an admission of guilt from an “unrepresented incompetent,” there are no immigration-court proceedings to determine a person’s competency. Judges have to go with their gut – which can be tough to gauge with language barriers and the frequent use of long-distance video conferencing.

What is the solution? Is there a solution. I’d love to hear from you.


BLOG ACTION DAY 2008: Spotlight on POVERTY-in-LAW

I signed up to write about poverty for Blog Action Day 2008 a few weeks back and the possibilities seemed endless and somewhat overwhelming. Then I considered the phrase “write about what you know.” Well, my professional life has been absorbed with access to justice and its mission – expand and enhance legal representation to South Carolinians with low income. Luckily it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this is THE poverty topic for me!

To get there, it’s time for a little background on me. Please indulge me.

My parents modeled philanthropy for me. From an early age, I learned that giving to someone in greater need than you felt really good. In my early teens, I worked as a candy striper and visited nursing homes with my church youth group in addition to dropping off goods at my local Goodwill store. Years passed and I kept the spirit alive continuing to do charitable works, but it didn’t hold the same meaning for me.

That’s when I sat on a jury. All of a sudden I realized that law held a lot of power over most of us – at some point in our lives. It dawned on me that I could go to law school and help people in the process. ( I had been a travel agent for over 11 years and had transferred me from Chicago to Greenville, SC.) Mind you, my friends called me out and said “Law school? To help people? Lawyers don’t help people.” I held my ground.

I studied for my LSAT and sent away for my undergrad records, completed paperwork, and updated my shots. I considered how to pay for law school and reasoned I could sell my house and use what little equity I had to help buy books and pay tuition. I applied. And I got in. Whew!

Oh yeah, I quit my job.

And started at the USC School of Law. As a 1L at age 34. And I went to meet Pamela D. “Pam” Robinson my very first day. She got me started with pro bono in law school right away. And she kept me busy, er, I stayed busy with pro bono throughout law school. I had the pro bono bug so to speak. I was a vounteer advocate for SisterCare, a guardian ad litem for Richland County CASA, and worked on special projects for the SC Bar to name a few things.

After law school I started working at a private, non-profit organization, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A). Although a requirement for becoming a client was to have a disability, many times my clients were also living below, at or barely above the federal poverty guidelines. Why? Because many of them were denied employment due to their disability aka disability discrimination. Others had unimaginable monthly or weekly medication bills and even if there were recipients of either Medicaid or Medicare, they were still unable to purchase ALL their meds. And don’t forget about housing disability discrimination, even in HUD housing. There were lawsuits based on transportation discrimination. Abuse and neglect. Firsthand I witnessed degrading and deplorable living conditions for people with mental illness and cognitive impairments whose living arrangements were supplemented by SSI and OSS.

These individuals were and many of them are living in poverty. Which brings us back to the topic at hand. I came to the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission to assist those very people and others like them living in poverty.

  • Battling discrimination assists people in poverty.
  • Working as a pro bono attorney assists people in poverty.
  • Providing self-represented litigants with appropriate materials assists people in poverty.
  • Supporting legal services assists people in poverty.
  • Providing legal assistance to the homeless assists people in poverty.
  • Supporting the Bar Foundation assists people in poverty.

How? People in poverty are subject to daily stress. Where will I work? How can my child eat? How do I get to this job interview? How do I pay my car insurance? Which medication do I pay for – my heart medication or my anti-psychotic medication?

Bench, Bar and public can assist people in poverty by supporting ACCESS TO JUSTICE. When people in poverty show up at your door and have dreadful stories of discrimination, offer them hope. Refer them to their local Legal Services Intake line (in SC) to request assistance. Refer them to the court’s website for forms (in SC). Send them to SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center for material. Take a look at resources. AND DO NOT GIVE UP!

There are many of us who are battling poverty , in ways familiar to us. We’re forming partnerships and alliances. South Carolina Access to Justice is battling poverty by way of the law. Join us, won’t you?


Robin Wheeler aka RFW
Robin Wheeler aka RFW